Perceval and Karina


I once met a man at Harvard when I was pretending to be a woman from France. He was a third generation attorney named Perceval Harkness Granger the third.  It was the actress in me, looking for something more interesting from life than the hand I’d been dealt. While he told me about himself, I got busy assembling a French accent and history to match. I was just back from France so my clothes reflected the culture.

Yes, this is my first trip to America, I told him, I’ve come to study music.

I was without shame. Unfortunately, the more we talked, the more I liked him and by the end of lunch we’d made arrangements to see each other again. Now I was really stuck. If I wanted to be with him, I needed to continue to be the person he’d met, which would be an on-going challenge.

The show-down came when he gave me a surprise birthday party, decorated his apartment like a street in Paris and invited all of his friends who spoke French.

 I wanted to make you feel at home, he told me.

 How dear. The only problem was that I didn’t speak French. I just had a great accent from spending my summer there. I walked cautiously from guest to guest, like a swimmer in shark infested waters telling them my latest lies.

I’ve promised that as long as I am in the United States that I will speak only English. That’s what I am here to learn, forgive me if I don’t join you.

It had taken everything I had to maintain my charade with Percy, but convincing a group pushed me over the edge. I decided to end the game. We’d dated for the better part of the school year, when I asked him to join me on a park bench to discuss ‘some things of common interest.’ I drank in his image for the last time. He was a handsome young man with dark wavy hair, his eyelashes, thick brush strokes executed with precision. He had opened my eyes to the world of art films, coffee houses, Harvard University and what it felt like to stand on a solid family base.

 My voice sounded flat and ordinary, as I let go of my French accent and explained what I had done. Everything felt different as I did, colors, textures, the light, the very air smelled different. When I finished, he got up and walked away, feeling angry, embarrassed, and used. That was the last I ever heard from him, except for a book he mailed to me written by Eric Fromm, called, The Art of Loving. He wanted me to read it, but the title was enough. I got the point.

Last year I decided to Google him and found he had died. Percy decided not to become a lawyer after all. He migrated to writing instead, leaving a creative legacy for television, theater and the screen. Maybe I inspired him. You think?


I was supposed to be studying music at the Mozarteum in Austria, but I couldn’t get myself to care. I had been sprung from boarding school in early June and boarded a plane for Europe shortly after. I was scheduled for a summer of study, before landing in another music school in Cambridge, but how could I study? I’d just been put in a cornucopia of new experiences and cultures. Why would I put my face in a book or run up and down musical scales in another academic world? 

The night clerk where I stayed was young and cute. He owned a red Vespa and offered to show me the countryside.

Show away! I said. 

salzburgI did show up for classes a few times, but when I walked into my German class, my instructor actually announced that he hated Americans. Well you know what, I hate ya back. You are just the excuse I need to get out of here.

Our group was watched over by Jesuit priests from Georgetown University. I found my favorite guy and told him a story about being overwhelmed and unable to adjust to a full academic schedule. He agreed to tutor me, so my class schedule was cut in half. The gates were open. I’d return home with half the credits, but didn’t care.

I still tell people I was in Salsburg when Van Cliburn won the international Mozart competition. He was amazing and wonderful, but the truth of my summer would be found more honestly in another place. I was the girl with hair flying free on the back of a red vespa.

One can never be too careful about the stress of academic overload.

The Recital

stepsI entered the Longy School of Music as a singer, but could not read music. I faked it by getting classical records out of the library and learning songs by ear. I was an exceptional student until I could not locate the recording needed, then my voice teacher would shake her head in wonder at my apparent lapse of ability.

Giving a recital on an instrument was a requirement of the school, but I didn’t play one. To comply, I sat next to an overweight man who smoked cigarettes and wiped bored sweat from his brow. He tried to teach me piano and how to read music. I had only been playing for three months when the concert rolled around. The public was in attendance and so was the faculty. Grades were issued accordingly. I went to the dean.

Surely, you can’t expect me to perform on the piano when I’ve been playing such a short time. I’d only make a fool of myself.

It’s a requirement of the school, he said, there are no exceptions.

The afternoon of the recital I was escorted across a grand stage amidst enthusiastic applause to a piano fit for a master student. Positioning myself I said a silent prayer and began to play. This was a student’s time to shine, to show the community and faculty that they held professional status. Naturally no sheet music was allowed. I was sick with nerves, knowing full well that I possessed no skill whatsoever. If only I could sing for them, I thought, everything would be fine.

I played for ten measures before my memorization collapsed.  Determined not to fail, I reached into my bag and pulled out the forbidden sheet music, praying for a miracle of comprehension. I envisioned red ink marks being splashed across my report by the faculty seated in the back row, but no longer cared. This was an exercise in survival. The notes on the page ran together, while restless whispers from the audience amplified. I stopped to gather courage, took a deep breath, and straightened my posture. A vast landscape of black and white ivory lay before me. I had only to place my fingers on the right tract to make my way to safety, but I could not. I missed the mark over and over again.

Finally an authoritative voice from the back of the auditorium rose and called out to me.

Miss Banfield, may I make a suggestion?

Yes, please sir. I was in desperate need of a lifeline.

Try playing a D with the third finger of your left hand, instead of an F. I think you’ll find it gets you back on track. I changed my fingering and it momentarily eased the pain.

Dear God, can someone tell me how a gentlemen in the back row could indicate which finger was amiss, while I, giving it my full attention was completely lost?

I played on, being guided by whatever saints take mercy on inept musicians. When I finished, I closed the sheet music and returned it to the bag. I pushed back the piano bench with what dignity remained and prepared to leave. The same man stood again at the rear of the concert hall.

Miss Banfield, I have a question for you before you go.

A renewed sense of panic filled my body.

I’d like to inquire, do you enjoy playing the piano?

Shielding my eyes from the glare of the spotlight, I probed the sea of faces before me, searching unsucessfully for his.

No sir, I answered, I hate it.

He made some marks in his book and dismissed me by saying, it shows.

Be Mine

guy-shirtsWe did a fund-raiser before we left Alaska. After the theatrical performance I hid behind the set as long as possible, hoping to avoid being social. It had been a long day and I didn’t know if I could smile at any more strangers. Eventually, hunger got the best of me and I ventured toward the food table.

Oh, Miss Banfield, a voice called out, I’ve been waiting for you. Would you join me please? 

I had to. It was my job.

Just one moment, let me get some food and we’ll talk.

I was in the mood for prime rib and potatoes, but settled for the crackers, cheese and bite-sized vegetables offered. I peered back at the circular table that was tucked in the corner, and quietly assessed the gentleman who had spoken; middle-aged, businessman, reliable, somewhat dull. A rapid evaluation, I concluded, and probably unfair.

Balancing an abundant supply of food on a tiny paper plate, I approached his table. He stood to pull out my chair, reached into his briefcase and placed a file on the table. Miss Banfield, I have figures I’d like to show you.

I blanched. Oh dear, I thought, he’s from the Internal Revenue Service. I stopped eating.

Don’t be alarmed. I have a list of assets I want to go over with you, just take a minute.

I slowly began eating and studied him again. He must be the bookkeeper from Pacific University, I thought. They were our financial host. Perhaps he needed me to take figures back to the main office.

I ate and listened, while he spoke of land, houses, machinery and cars. He disclosed his personal income and many of his intimate tastes. When he finished I was completely baffled, without a glimmer of comprehension. I wiped my mouth with a small green napkin and looked blankly into his eyes.

I don’t understand a word you’ve told me. What’s your purpose?

He straightened his back and became very formal.

I was wondering if you would consider marriage. As you see, I am a very stable man, well employed and respected. I own a great deal of land and have been looking for the right person to share it with. There is a shortage of women in Alaska, so I don’t have a bursting selection. Would you consider my proposal?

I was completely taken back, tried to be gentle, wished him luck and made a hasty exit. What a girl has to go through to have a meal in Alaska.

Artistic Community

peacockI had a friend named B’Lou, short for Betty Lou, who was an incredibly gifted, intense and sharp-edged woman. I met her when I sang in a Rock Opera at Storefront Theater. We became fast friends. B’Lou cut her hair short, smoked long brown cigarettes and had the lean styled body of the professional dancer she was. She was aloof, elegant, and both baffled and alienated by the culture she lived in. We shared a background in the arts and many long afternoons in her costume closet.

B’Lou either liked you or she didn’t, there was no middle ground. If a person had artistic qualities, or if the men were gay, she sensed a potential friend and playmate, then her world was welcoming and wide. But if people were not on her preferred list, she could be rude and distant. They were greeted like a bug in her caviar.

 B’Lou always had strange and unusual ideas. For instance she thought it was great fun to put on a costume and parade with friends down the street like Princess Di, smiling and waving a mindless regal wave. She taught movement classes and encouraged students to go to a near-by shopping center to create as many variations of walking as they could think of. Ultimately, security guards arrested her for walking backwards too long; they found it threatening and unnatural.

I made my way through prize dahlias and artfully sculpted foliage to seek her advice. I needed a place to live but had no income. I don’t know how to move without money, I told her, but I have to leave. The only place I’d found to stay when I came back from touring was in the house of an x-husband. She looked intently at the end of her long brown cigarette. You obviously need to leave, she said, we have to figure out the funding. Her face lit with an idea. Henley is having his house foreclosed, but that could take a very long time with the legal procedures. Maybe you could move in there. It would not be ideal but it would buy you some time.

I don’t even know Henley, How can I introduce myself and say that I’m interested in living in his house rent-free, until his life self-destructs? Seems a bit much, don’t you think?

No, not really. I’ll take care of explaining it to him.

Henley had the corner house next to B’Lou. I liked the idea of being neighbors. Of course you’ll have to clean it, she said. Henley is a trasher of the highest order. Be prepared for that. She knocked an ash into a large crystal bowl and welcomed her Siamese cat into the folds of her sweater. The other reason this could work, she continued, is because Henley is interested in metaphysics. You could teach him in exchange for rent, if you are both in agreement.

When I showed up for our meeting, I met a man whom I can only describe as alarming. He looked like he’d been foraging through garbage cans all morning, the zipper of his trousers was undone and he was dirty and smelled. I was not impressed. As I sat across from him, I thought I would sooner land in the gutter than share a space with such a man, free or not.

To my surprise, when he spoke I discovered an intellect that bordered on genius. He was regal in his mannerisms and remarkably knowledgeable. I wondered how such a man could have fallen so low. Henley had been an internationally known ice skating coach, who still received calls from Olympic hopefuls. He had lost his father, thought he had cancer and completely bottomed out. Something snapped and he stopped functioning, stopped working and thoroughly neglected his appearance. The ironic part was that he was totally optimistic.

Henley lived on the second floor and told me I could have the first, which had its own entrance and plenty of privacy. The furnace was hopelessly broken but a woodstove in the main room provided heat. The building was a lovely vintage home which had fallen into the same disrepair as its owner. Uncontrolled blackberry bushes covered the sidewalk; the front porch was piled with garbage, old magazines and official looking threats from the city. He opened the door to a black and white tiled entryway, a large living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. The backyard looked like the front, overgrown and untended. He had junk, refuse, discarded garbage, dirty clothes, and smelly debris knee-high inside.

What should I do with your things, I asked while trying a new technique of breathing out and not in. I’ll throw everything away unless it looks valuable.  

He moved through the space as if he were in a meadow. I don’t care, he told me, do what you like.

The next two weeks were spent hauling away garbage, scrubbing walls and tiles and waging a battle with blackberries. I made my way through the lower part of the house, while Henley studied philosophy and metaphysics. It was hard not to hate him for the squalor I worked in. I scrubbed and disinfected while saying to myself, Henley, you Idiot. How could you let his happen? How could you live like this? How can you stand the odor?  I’d fill great black garbage bags with untouchable belongings and he’d come up behind me, thrust a tarot card over my shoulder and say, What does this one mean? He was oblivious.

This is not the best time for me, Henley, I’d explain gritting my teeth. Could you wait a few minutes? He was obsessed with curiosity.

If I got money from a reading or from the rare arrival of a child support check, we’d go shopping. I’d buy him shoes that didn’t leak, warm socks and food. The first time I took him to dinner, I told him to order anything he wanted.

Do you mean it, he asked.zebra-man1


He ordered three separate meals plus dessert. He hadn’t eaten in a long time. I knew that B’lou also fed him but most of the time he lived on coffee, and the mental pleasure of books. I wasn’t paying rent, couldn’t afford to, but shared what I had with him, and he was good to me.

One afternoon sitting in B’Lou’s hot tub I inquired. Why do you think Henley is the way he is? He’s so smart but completely checked out. I care for him but don’t understand him at all. We were soaking in evening air underneath a cedar tree. The yard was lit with candles. B’lou’s eyes reflected light as she answered. Karen, we’re all case studies of sorts. Henley’s file is just a little thicker than ours, that’s all.

Eventually things turned around. Henley owned several pieces of professional work-out equipment. I talked him into selling them so he could use the money to live on. He had a friend who began making arrangements to save his house. I cleaned and rented the attic space to a chiropractor who could afford to pay rent. Things were looking up, Kristen and I settled in.

B’Lou managed to place friends in bordering houses when they came up for lease, so we had a community. We gathered at her house on Sundays to share food, talk about our lives and the latest creative projects that might save us all from poverty.

The Crush

crazy-piano-guyBusiness began at Storefront Theater with daily gatherings to write music and a script about energy conservation. I became the Energy God Mother on roller skates, and propelled myself across countless school auditoriums teaching children how to conserve energy so they could, have a brighter tomorrow. I also made a special guest appearance near the end of the show as a pink satin washing machine. Not the career in opera I had trained for, but I was having fun.

Unfortunately, I developed a terrific crush on Charles, the piano player. Men were the ones to make advances in my world, like the wedding proposal I received from a complete stranger between shows in Alaska, so I had no skill for initiating. When the time came to speak to Charles about anything but work, I was silent, tongue-tied, frozen.

Did you want something, he’d ask?

No, no, I’d lie, as I disappeared quickly behind the stage. Just wanted to say you played well.

Finally I’d had enough. I was standing in the lower hallway after rehearsal and saw Charles making his way to the elevator. Do it, I told myself. For God sake put an end to this and ask him. Ask him what? I couldn’t remember. He was getting closer to the elevator, running for it. Each step brought him nearer. If I didn’t speak he would run right past. I had to do it. It was now or never. I would not let him go by without settling this. It was essential I speak, but nothing was coming out of my mouth. He was getting away. I couldn’t let it happen.

In frustration I reached out and grabbed his belt loop. He kept going, never even slowed down as it ripped completely off his pants. He heard the rip, felt the tug. He ran to the elevator, leaned against the back wall, looked down at his torn pants and out at me. There I stood with dazed eyes, his belt loop wrapped around my finger, long threads dangling in space. He gave me a look that said, oh my God, it’s you. I should have known. I winced, sorry Charles, sorry.

We worked together for the next six months, and neither of us mentioned the belt loop incident. Charles fell in love with another woman, which was just as well.  I’d decided I wasn’t in love with him after all. It was just too darned hard.

Madame Schinnerea

conductorAt boarding school I traded gym class for music and went into town to study with the worldly Madame Schinnerea. She was accomplished, rigid, expensive and formally trained.  The woman managed, all by herself, to remove any joy I had ever felt for music. Under her training, music became cold and technical. If, at any time, she felt my work was less than perfect, she would cancel whatever engagements had been scheduled.

The minister from the Congregational church was especially put out by this. During my lesson he stopped by and demanded to know why my performance had been canceled.  Madame Schinnerea replied, she does not sing the piece as Handel intended. I won’t have a student of mine doing sloppy work.

The minister pleaded; couldn’t she just sing a simple hymn? It’s the beauty of her voice we love, not the sound of her jumping through classical hoops. She glared at him with all the impatience of a superior mind, dealing with the hopelessly ignorant. No, not even a simple hymn. It was over. I was to be perfect or not open my mouth. I tried; I pushed and pulled myself to become a gifted musical acrobat. I sang arias I didn’t understand in Italian, French and German – still not good. She gave me Hamlet to recite, in the hope of elevating my mind and thus my voice, but I could not please her. Finally I rebelled and joined the cheerleading squad where I screamed for hours in damp weather.  She was furious and informed my mother that I could have had a career on the concert stage, but lacked ambition.

I never had such lofty ideas. I was full of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, never Maria Callas.  Defying her further, I went to church every Sunday and sang hymn after hymn in the choir. I was their soloist, the only dormitory student, and was regarded with curiosity by the white haired ladies. We’ve never had a boarding student take an interest in the choir before. What an unusual young woman you are.

My best friend during those years was a beautiful Lebanese woman named, Susan. She was a townie, as distinguished from a boarding student. The academy was attended by local students, which saved it from being elitist or intolerably over run by the behavior problems of the wealthy. When I spent the night with Susan, I’d put on classical music and delight in the beauty of Chopin’s Piano sonatas, but she’d have none of it. I keep telling you, I don’t like that stuff. Put on something good, like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. I didn’t know who they were, so she educated me. When Susan put Dylan on the record player I was very glad Madame Schinnerea was no where around, because I knew she’d die of a heart attack on the spot. I could imagine her gasping for air and clutching her heart at the sounds he produced. Why wasn’t somebody canceling his performances?

Puppet Theater

tibetan-girlWhat if the only life you had depended on someone picking you up and taking you out of your box? What if you had no capacity for life on your own, but when you were put in the skilled hands of another, you could bring audiences to tears, cause roaring laughter and see them spring to their feet in appreciation.

We wrote original scripts in a studio just over the river in the state of Washington. As an educational theater company we were the welcome reason children left their classes to experience the wonder of Japanese Bunruku, shadow and hand-rod puppetry. We performed from Oregon to Alaska for children young enough to be mesmerized by the magic of make-believe. 

It was my job to provide movement, character and voices for three or four puppets at a time, while a male touring partner did the others. The children energized the performance with rapt attention, laughter and wild applause. It was exciting to see how completely the children stepped into another reality, accepted it, and became the moment. For example, we had written a show about a coyote getting stuck in a cedar tree, but had to revise the scene when I said as the voice of coyote, I seem to be stuck in this tree. Is there anyone who can help me get out? That line was supposed to announce the entrance of a Native American, but to my surprise three hundred children rose from their seats screaming, I can help you coyote. I’m coming. 

The puppets were nothing more than fiberglass, fabric and wood, limp in my hands, but in front of an audience they were alive and vibrant, as if the truth of them resided solely in shadow. I became their midwife over and over again, birthing them into existence at each appointed moment, than placing them back inside their long coffin-like traveling boxes after each exhausting exposure.

This was a mind-bending experience, and enough to make even the most realistic among us pause. In performance the life of the puppet became legitimate, played out against the darkened room of the stage, while I watched the shadows on the wall, as another reality, another kind of life, played out next to the one we intended. Was this a kind of karma, or gift for those not ready to move fully into life? Was it a skillful birthing of spirit while hiding in illusion, a sort of trying out life before actually showing up? I don’t know. I just know the chills I felt every once in awhile, as I watched it all play out.

Rock Creek

yaniThe Rock Creek Tavern is a family place full of tapestry rugs, original art and stained glass windows. It’s five country miles from our house, past tall red barns, flooded wheat fields and acres of horse-fenced hills. Every Tuesday they host bluegrass music in a non-performance environment. Being there is like walking into someone’s living room where a group of friends have gathered. There are no microphones, just kindred spirits coming together to play stand-up bass, mandolins, banjos, guitars, fiddles and dobro. It did not surprise me that most of the musicians were my age, because playing music in that way was such a strong part of our past.

After a hard day at work, my mother would lower her tiny frame on the piano bench and allow her raven hair to move free against her face. She would pour the sorrow from her heart into the songs she sang and lament in minor keys and sultry tempos. My older brother played guitar, my younger brother played drums, while my sister and I sang background duets.

We danced in the village once a week. Accordion music propelled us in great skipping circles as we learned to polka and follow the commands of square dance fiddlers. We swirled until we were out of breath and red in the cheeks. We never went to visit neighbors without migrating to the piano to play hymns, folk songs or show tunes. Schools required every student to play an instrument or go to choir. People played music on the porch after dinner, and children in elementary school had music day once each week.

I remember thinking, when I first worked in dinner theater, how odd it was that a whole room full of people would sit in their chairs, heavy from too much dinner and watch me do what we should all be doing together.

I am truly saddened by television, our cultural Chernobyl, because it put an end to all of that. Instead of playing music, singing, enjoying community and feeling alive, we became inert and comatose by comparison.

When did we forget how to dance?

When did we forget how to sing?

There are children leaning over the railing that divides the upper dining room at Rock Creek from the musicians below. The woman playing the stand up bass has stopped, and turned her attention to them. She invites the little ones to stroke the strings and experience the magic that’s created. The dobro player is telling them about his slide guitar, a cherry wood instrument with a shiny silver top. Her name is Rosie, he explains. She’s one hundred years old and lived undiscovered in a barn for a long time. I found her and brought her to life again. I take good care of her because she is beautiful and important to me.

The children are laughing and smiling, the wonder of music alive in their eyes.

Finding Balance

 When I was in my thirties, I lived in Seattle, or rather crash-landed there after two exhausting years of being on tour with the theater.  Travel, hotel rooms, performing and restaurant meals left me ill and defeated. I had to leave the theater with no idea what to do next. At that time, I did not see my intuitive healing work as a career, it was just something I did for the people I met who were in need. I seemed to always have a small stream of folks coming to my door for help. My Aunt Ethel had encouraged my sight in a playful way, by reading my fortune in tea leaves. It was a game we played together. I moved on to using cards and eventually to nothing but my own knowing.

tightrope-walker1Because I was new to Seattle, I took myself to a psychic fair at a local yoga center to meet kindred spirits. After an afternoon of readings, a man approached and asked if I would come on NBC to demonstrate my skills. I told him I’d think about it. Not being a television watcher, I had no way to judge if the experience was meant for ridicule, so I asked neighbors if the show was reputable. It was, so I accepted, hoping the experience might provide a few new clients to tide me over.

 I was broke the morning of the program, so I borrowed bus fare from the man who ran the neighborhood market across the street. I grabbed a large paper bag, stuffed my belongings inside, and ran out the door. Others came in limousines.  When I arrived, I was ushered upstairs to a waiting room, where I met interesting women with similar abilities.  The television hostess took me aside, and asked if I would give her a quick sample of my skills. She was scurrying around in a frantic state of disarray, looking like she could have a nervous breakdown at any moment. Every hair had to be perfect, as well as her clothes, make-up and voice. She was on a fast-track to the top, despite personal cost. I told her as much. She declared me a genius, and that was that.

When I was escorted into the television studio, she was calm, confident and inviting. I know that psychics have many rituals they use in doing their work, she told the audience, and noticed that you carry your special things in a brown paper bag. Could you tell us about the significance of that?

I sat in a moment of disbelief. The only significance, I laughed, is that I could not find my purse this morning.

Well folks, she continued, Karen blew me away with the accuracy of her reading earlier, so I am excited to hear what she will see for us now.

Another moment of disbelief. ‘Blew me away?‘ Reading for her was like asking somebody if a house was on fire. Not a tough assessment.

I shared with the audience what little I knew about the history of using cards for divination, then read for a woman about a new business she was opening, what it would involve, and what it could mean to her personal life. 

The producer had arranged for the same woman to stand up and ask the same question of each of us. We were kept in isolation until we read, then taken off again, so we couldn’t hear what the others reported. We were being publicly tested.

Long story short, the show was a success. I had never watched television in the morning, and had no understanding of the number of people who did, so when my phone started to ring, I was pleased. I did not know that the phone would not stop ringing. The phone did not stop at any time during the day or night. It did not stop for a full month! At first I left the receiver off the hook, so I could have moments of peace, but eventually I unplugged it all together. I thought I should be able to manage the calls, but it was like trying to stop a human tsunami. And so, I walked away. 

I began doing haircuts for neighbors to make ends meet, and put up signs to help as a Girl Friday along Lake Washington. An older woman named Margaret was my first client. She was my idea of a Norman Rockwell style grandmother. She spoiled and loved me to such an extent that I dropped other clients, and worked only for her.

I felt unsettled by the television experience, and guilty. I knew my sight could help others, and felt a strong sense of duty. But I was only one person and my inner resources were already dangerously low.

I remember being frightened during this period. I felt I should be able to create or read or sculpt or write whenever I pleased. I was afraid there was something wrong with me when the activities that gave me comfort dried up and went away.

Margaret was wise at these times. She would remind me about cycles and seasons over tuna casserole, warm cookies and coke. She helped me understand the timing of things, and that it all came down to keeping my balance, no matter what cycle I was in.  When life is abundantly good and showering you with gifts, stay humble and centered. When life is throwing stones and pulling you into the mud, stay humble and centered. Watch it all. See it for what it is, and never let it define you. I learned that year that receiving too much, was as dangerous as receiving too little, and that if I centered and waited, well, pretty soon, all that I needed would come back around again.

Christmas Present


bead1It was going to be a meager Christmas. My son was five years old and my daughter, seven. I spent money on fabric, trims, buttons and dowels to make them each a tapestry for their room. I worked at night after they went to bed, clipping along measured lines to fashion a golden ballerina for Kristen and a Star Wars character for Clay.

Every year I imagined the next Christmas would be better. I promised myself that I’d have more money, more stability, and resources. Every year as I fashioned another homemade gift, I wondered what it would be like to go into stores and buy whatever I pleased. I wondered what it would be like to stop being a student, an artist and single mom. I was determined to change my essential nature, so I could fit into society’s shoe. I believed I could have a better life, if I only tried harder, worked longer or pushed in another new direction.

One holiday, I gave them mugs with hot air balloons painted on them, to tide them over until I could supply the real thing. I told them stories about the adventures we would have, someday, when things got better.

When things got really hard, I stole left-over pizza from a near-by restaurant to feed them. I’d have a small salad, then wait for the fleeting opportunity between customers getting up to leave and the waitress clearing the table. I needed to move quickly and unseen, storing food in the container inside my pocket. I taught myself to do without, to fast, so my own hunger could have purpose and form; so I could make peace with working so many hours and still having so little to live on.

It was in this vein that I decided a Christmas tree was an indulgence, yet in my heart I wanted one. I remember driving home and saying out loud, Damn it! I do want a Christmas tree. I want a big one that fills the whole house, not some wimpy thing that suits my purse.

And so I got my wish.  It was midnight. I had just finished performing in a downtown Portland theater. The streets were stark, the glow of lights against soft rain the only reflection. I remember thinking how odd it was that there was no traffic on such a normally busy street. No one at all. I was getting ready to turn into my neighborhood when I saw something in the lane in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, swerving just in time, and there it was –  the biggest most perfect Christmas tree I had ever seen, right in the middle of the road, like it had dropped from the sky. I pulled the car over and waited for someone to come back for it, but no one did, so I pulled, shoved and muscled it into the back of my old SAAB, then drove happily home, excited to show the kids in the morning.

That was a long time ago now, but last year my son’s wife sent me an email: Do you remember the tapestry you made him when he was a little boy? Is there any chance you know where it is, or could make him another? He still talks about how much he loved that.   I guess hot air balloon rides and store bought gifts aren’t everything.

What if…..


Why don’t business people have to do what artists have to do?

Why aren’t they told that their desires must be squeezed into spare time?

Why aren’t lawyers allowed to practice as a rogue gesture, after proving themselves at a real job like playing jazz?

Why aren’t accountants restricted to completing sums, after proving themselves worthy by hours of painting with oils?

Why aren’t insurance agents made to write days of poetry to feed their family?

 I’m sure you’re a good plumber, but you can’t make a living that way. Do that nonsense on your own time. Stick to playing the piano, it pays better.

What if each person was required to spend eight hours a day singing, sculpting, dancing, doing theater, playing the violin, building sets or writing novels, while those on the fringe lived in the poverty stricken world of commerce. What a different world that would be.

How odd to require a group of people to spend the best energy of the day being what they are not, so they can afford to do what feeds their soul.


There were no grown-ups in our world, except the out of breath cook, who climbed steep stairs with our food tray in hand. His was a hurry-up job. Here is your food, be good.  He carried prime rib, mashed potatoes, vegetables and homemade pies from the restaurant below. Sometimes we ate it, more often we had food fights. Dishes crashed as we climbed on the table, eager to perform on our make-shift stage. We made wide-armed gestures like the ones we’d seen on television; sang, danced, created costumes, swirled and laughed.

Look at me. Look at me. I am Cruella DeVille.

My oldest brother picked up his guitar, my youngest brother beat out rhythms on his drumset. We all shrieked with delight, often peeing our pants with laughter. We were five kids raising ourselves.

A raccoon ran up and down the hallway, a cat with new kittens nested on fallen coats, and a crow rode my sister’s shoulder like it was born there; even an occasional chicken witnessed our performance. The raccoon was a mainstay, until he bit my father’s balding head, we never saw old Coonie after that.

No one survived very long in that house, especially not housekeepers or babysitters. We constantly fought one another, but became a unified force with outsiders. Those with an idea toward reform or discipline stood no chance at all. There is one vivid memory of a babysitter cornered in the music room. She was literally backed against the wall, as five of us threatened like predators. My brother thought we should have done the – pail of cold water over her head from the second floor trick – but I wanted to give her a fighting chance. She left and never returned, one of many defeated by the Banfield savages.

A Russian woman came once a week, leaving stacks of clean clothes, folded and neatly balanced on our beds.  Put these away, she instructed. During the week the stacks were knocked to the floor and walked on, like everything else. There was no one to notice, no one to care.

The playroom was at the far end of the kitchen and housed a rarely changed cat box. I remember it being cleaned when a dance teacher arrived. We pointed our toes and slid them back and forth in the hope of learning first and second positions. Ballet did not stick, nor did tap dancing. The horses, ice skating, swimming and backyard baseball games did.

My father’s mother was trouble. She was serious about rules and best avoided. We had a small white cottage near the pond, where we escaped when she came. The cottage was safe, since she refused to venture across cornfields to further her point. Lucky for us, she didn’t visit often, or we could have been civilized.

written 9-4-08

Song for Keyo

I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday, but my brain has forever stored the lyrics to useless, senseless songs from the 1950’s.

Dungaree Doll

I wanna make a chain of paper clips and chain us together while I kiss your lips.

The kind of slow sensual song I listen to now reminds me of packing seven of us into a Volkswagen Van to drive from Portland, Oregon to New York City. Big Bush was the driver, named for the Afro that filled most of the front seat. They were street musicians who performed in Harvard Square. They played music and I read Tarot Cards.

The lyrics to Lean on me floated through the square sung by Keyo Morales, my wonderful Puerto Rican friend from Spanish Harlem. Keyo had a shaved head. He wore a hoop ear-ring (before men did such things), a tuxedo jacket over Army fatigues and red high top tennis shoes. I loved Keyo with all my heart, but so did ever other woman whoever met him, because Keyo’s love was universal, too big to be contained. Keyo sang because he wanted people to stop fighting and start smiling and dancing. His music opened their hearts.

What a lovely troupe of friends I traveled with that summer. My daughter, Kristen was there too, but I missed my son, who stayed with his disapproving father, my thankfully X-husband. Everyone welcomed Kristen as part of our traveling family.

Eager customers formed lines around the block waiting for comfort, healing, and a view of their future from the woman in the blue velvet dress. I gave each person 15 minutes and they gave me $5, which actually meant something 30 years ago. After a long night of work I hid in the public restroom and counted my money. Great wads of five dollar bills made me rich. It was enough to get us an apartment for the summer and keep us in food. Transportation was provided by Keyo, who gave me a ride to Harvard Square each day on the handlebars of his bike, my nine year old daughter perched on the cross bars between his protective arms. Women were always lined up to see him when we arrived, but I was the only one coming and going on his handlebars.

When I hear dreamy loving music I remember that summer, the summer of being a nomad. How ironic that I led a gypsies life only blocks from the French Music School where I’d prepared for a career in opera. My life seemed to veer farther and farther from the mainstream every day.

Once I asked Keyo if he had ever done acid. “400 times,” he answered. Some part of me thought I should be worried, but it was the baldheaded man in red tennis shoes I felt most comfortable with. He was the person who taught me about love with no sexual expectations or conditions.  Keyo was love. His life was loves statement and his music its expression. His audience recognized the lack of it in their own lives and flocked to him like a pied piper of the heart.

I returned to Portland in the fall on The Grey Rabbit Hippie Bus, all of us crowded together like bunched asparagus. No room to move or breathe. They let us out in California and we hitchhiked back to Portland. Keyo stayed. I heard he moved in with a Native American woman in the winter. I tried to imagine a female vast enough to encompass his energy and love.

I felt sad and more than a little jealous, yet I knew he’d been there as my teacher and deepest friend; holding him was like holding the wind.

written 5-21-08


I love singing the arias of my youth. No matter where I am in my life, no matter my age, or what is happening around me, I can open my memory and access the vocal acrobatics that take me back to being a girl.

I stand on years of singing around the piano with my brothers and sisters, lessons from a full-faced teacher with a large gap between her front teeth, and finally off to boarding school, where all that love of music was nearly extinguished by a German voice teacher named, Madame Schinera.  There were recitals, performances and pressures, plans to study opera followed by the Mozartium in Austria.

I sing the arias of my youth perfectly, as I was taught to do. I am a vocal gymnast doing double back flips to amaze an audience. A single melodic phrase can return me to all of that. I congratulate myself on my exceptional training. The money, time and effort invested, that stopped when I married, as abruptly as a car hitting a telephone pole.

I remember. I am transported, and always, without fail, wished I’d studied instead with a large black woman; a woman who wiped her hands on a threadbare dish towel; a woman heavy with kitchen smells and children. She was the teacher I sought, when I was too young to know what I knew. I wanted her large embodiment of spirit to teach me the blues, I wanted to find jazz in her bloodstream. I yearned for a musical mama with her feet in the dirt; not an academic, who asked me to measure classical tempo, like teaspoons of baking power in a centuries old recipe.

written February 13, 2008

Multiple Personality

Today I was a:


Bed maker

Shower taker

Laundry woman



Dream consultant

Safe place for children



Care taker for dogs

Care taker for cats

Burial person for a bird

Radio audience


Library patron

Grocery shopper

Check writer

Postal patron


Ashram visitor

Dinner Guest


Gift receiver









written May 28, 2008

A Beautiful Pretending

I was taught to perform, an interesting occupation for an introvert.

We all were. My voice was in compliance. It ran clear and crystal in its range.

My body was acceptable. I knew how to smile when I didn’t feel happy. I was looking for love, so acceptance in the form of applause worked well.

I loved being different characters. I could be anyone, channel the essence of another person so completely it was like having them in the room. I could make other people laugh or cry with my skill and intention. But eventually I began to lose track of myself, of my central character. I lost track of the essence of me.

Ray, the man who built our costumes, picked me up in the theater company’s dirty van each morning, the one that said, Storefront Theater on the side. Ray was a rotund gay man who could build a stunning wardrobe out of cast-off clothing in seconds. Ray would study me for a moment when I walked from the house, wondering not so subtly just who he was picking up that morning.

Would it be Anna, the man-hater who made a life in men’s clothes and hiking boots? Or maybe Olga, the Swede, who wore her golden braids wrapped around her head, a rayon dress below and a shawl thrown across her shoulders. Maybe it was the ditsy Energy Godmother, who appeared in roller skates and felt good about everyone and everything. She was all sunshine and love.

I put on new characters each day, the way most people select different clothes from the closet. It wasn’t, What do I feel like wearing today, but who do I feel like being?

I once met a man at Harvard when I was pretending to be a woman from France. He was a third generation attorney named Percevial Harkness Granger the Third. What began as a simple conversation in a coffee shop turned into much more than I intended. Each time we went out, I thought I’d tell him the truth, but he was so captivated by everything about her, this ideal exotic perfect woman, that I could not bring myself to do it. Finally after a full year, I revealed the truth of my pretending. I simply had to stop it, because he was falling in love with her, and she was not me, not even close. He was appalled when I told him.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean for this to go on so long! I just did not know how to stop it.”

Theater companies loved my work, but I was shy, the audition process painful and tense. I didn’t want my characters to be judged and evaluated. I didn’t want other people’s words coming out of their mouths. I just wanted to give them life. It’s been a challenge to choose a central character and be her, to let her be all that I am. It’s also a little boring. When you’re the same person for too long, life gets stale.

I once had a party where we all came as our over-seeing angels. We addressed one another that way and stayed in character the whole evening.

So, how is it going with Karen? someone would ask.

Oh you know, the usual. She’s doing really well on many fronts, but I still have to give her a kick in the butt to get her out of the house. How’s it going with yours?

John’s been a problem lately. He’s stuck in that same job, you know and still dating those unavailable women. Maybe you could come by some time and take a look. Give me some new ideas.

I used to live next to my friend B’Lou, short for Betty Lou. We had a community of houses on 11th and Thompson in NE Portland, all occupied by artists. B’Lou was a tall thin dancer who smoked long brown cigarettes and found it hard to smile. She covered her dining room walls with mirrors, polished the hardwood floors and made it a dance studio, then turned her pantry into a costume closet. A piano greeted you when the door opened; a piano, her art work and a hand carved chair from Belgium.

B’Lou and I gave great parties together with lots of theater, music and dance. The neighborhood kids wore ivy crowns, dressed in long gowns and handed out programs. When you walked into B’Lou’s house, you stopped being yourself, went immediately to the pantry and became whatever character you felt like being.

B’Lou was an exercise nut who lived on the edge. Those long brown cigarettes finally did her in. Her funeral was the same as her parties, with one difference. This time there was a sign on the front door with her photograph. The sign said, Come in and play. Be somebody else for awhile and smile. I only died.

written July 26, 2008