When I turned fifty, I had a birthday bash. I asked folks to sing their favorite song, write a new one, or read me a much loved poem. Those were the gifts I wanted. I asked them to pretend I had died, and to get up and speak about my life, the way they would talk at my funeral. I wanted to hear what folks were going to say. Otherwise, how would I know? I draped photos from different chapters of my life around my sister Susan’s palatial house, giving folks something to laugh about and a way to focus conversation. There was a fire in the fireplace, friends played fiddle, mandolin and guitar. We ate well. A small bubbly Jewish friend named Sharon was one of the last to leave. I remember her making her way out the front door, her arms heavy with dishes. “I bet you never thought you’d look this good at 50, did you?” I was stunned. Was I supposed to look bad? 

When I lived in The Columbia River Gorge with my friend Tom, we had summer parties on acres of land. Folks hung clothes they no longer wanted on the line to be exchanged for the offerings of others. I hired a caller. We contra danced in long lines, laughing as we swirled and kicked our skirts up. We ate well and smiled openly. We sat on hay bales around an evening fire and munched handfuls of raspberries from the fifty acres that grew in the back field. 

B’lou, (short for Betty Lou, a name she hated) and I used to give all kinds of crazy parties. Our last one was, The God Party. We all came in character, dressed as our overseeing angel and talked about ourselves like we weren’t there. I was Mother Superior and had a delightful evening reprimanding those less perfect with a ruler. B’lou had a costume closet where a pantry used to be, and had turned the dining room into a dance floor with large mirrors and millions of theatrical hats. You were never expected to be yourself when you entered. Do you know how refreshing that can be?

When I turned 55, I asked friends to parade down Salmon Street in their pajamas. Ten women showed up, plus my daughter, granddaughter and a few neighbors. We put ivy in our hair and walked a short mile playing instruments, but it lacked something – a brass section, I think.  

I’ll be 65 on the last day of November; an age I can’t believe belongs to me. I guess there will be no party, because I have no ideas or motivation. I’ve planned a trip to California to visit my granddaughter, Britan, who will be sweet 16, and my son, Clay, who is pushing 40. We share the same birthday season. Then I’ll return, and have a quiet week-end at the coast with my buddy, Susan.

I’ve become solitary and hermit-like in my old age, living in the forest and doing little but working as a healer, teaching, writing and more and more healing work. I’ve also begun doing really dumb things, like searching for the phone while I’m talking on it. And putting on my sunglasses at night, instead of driving glasses, then freaking out believing there is something horribly wrong with my lights. I don’t feel as brave, as tough or as social as I used to. I miss that. But the worst part, is that people I don’t know keep sending me letters about cremation, hearing aids and hospital services. My mother was hang gliding and riding camels until she was 90. Why don’t they send letters encouraging us to do that?

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.

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