Susan's Blog

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Closing Time

I didn’t even notice the sign at first, I just pushed the heavy door open and walked up to the cash register to order. Jimmy Owens, the barrista who greets you with “Hihowaya?” pointed to the door, and there it was in black and white. Peet’s in Coolidge Corner would be closing its doors on January 25th. “What? Why?” I sputtered, but I kind of already knew. Just like the Chestnut Hill Peet’s that closed last year, the volume of business in Coolidge Corner Peet’s probably did not justify its operation anymore. Corporate metrics. But although our Peet’s is technically part of the national coffee chain, its quirky scruffiness makes it stand apart from the sheen of corporate America. “Are you going to be okay? Do you have a job?” I asked, not knowing what else to say. Jimmy told me his plans but I was already feeling a darkness descend on us both. 
I went to one of my favorite tables to write, but like a lost child I just kept thinking, “Where will I go?” I’ve never felt this way before about a store or restaurant closing. Even when the Coolidge Corner McDonald’s closed, though I felt for the many seniors there who camped out for hours because of the inexpensive coffee, I didn’t feel as bad as I do about Peet’s. There are so many coffee shops in Brookline but to me, none have the quirky, warm, comfortable feel of Peet’s. CC Peet’s is like the nerdy shabby beloved absent-minded-professor of coffee shops, kind of Intelligentsia with a hippie edge.
Though there was talk of potential renovations at one time, I was always glad they didn’t go through with it. The tall windows that line its walls do let in huge puddles of water on their ledges — but also the best soft light. And once you wipe them off, those ledges provide extra seating. Often packed, strangers will share their tables with other lone customers. People dance nimbly around each other reaching for the cream and sugar, keeping an eye out for a newly-vacated table. Conversations in all sorts of languages and every emotion rise and fall, punctuated by the frequent screech of a chair being dragged to a table. The cacophony is just part of the ambience.
It is often noisy, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the friendliness of the place that keeps you coming back. Sometimes the staff comps people their drink or at least delivers it right to your table. They know our orders, they know if it’s “for here” or not. Anybody who is anybody in Brookline goes there to make deals, hatch ideas, write their magnum opus. Deals have been made, fortunes lost. Well, maybe not. But fourteen years ago, my writing group originated there, and it was at those square wooden tables that the three of us celebrated landing our book contracts. And there are so many others of us who have now lost their haven, just like with the McDonald’s. The elderly couple who always come in for an espresso; the young moms who must park their tractorlike strollers in the aisles and exert no control over their unruly juicy babies; the woman who keeps her dog loose in the entryway. Where will they all go now?
I posted the news in the Brookline Townwide Forum on Facebook and right away had sad emoji after sad emoji and empathic comments. Anger, too. We all looked for someone to blame. “People just camp out with their one coffee, and take up tables.” True. Guilty. Although I try to buy other items when I’m there for longer than an hour, especially since they started selling sandwiches. “It’s the students,” someone scoffed, presumably because they can’t really afford more than one coffee, nor do they have nice places to work. (When in doubt, blame Millennials.) “Can’t wait for another bank,” someone muttered. In fact, there is another place that serves Peet’s, the Capital One Cafe, nearly across the street from the real one, and it is housed in the bank. To me, it is not the same. Too quiet. No real atmosphere. They might as well be serving Starbucks.
Sure, there are likely a combination of factors leading to this sad closure. Brookline’s high rents? Tight parking? Lack of tables when customers need them, leading to the exodus to the Capital One? The sign on the door reminds us that there are still two Peet’s in the area: Harvard Square and in the Capital One in downtown Boston. It doesn’t even mention the Capital One right here, I noted smugly.
I wrote to Peet’s customer service to find out their side. They had this to say about it:
“Peet’s Coffee must keep pace with changing and evolving markets to enable healthy company growth. While it is not an easy decision, regional adjustments to our coffeebar presence is important for effectively managing our resources and continuing our U.S. expansion. That said, Peet’s is committed to the Boston region, having added new locations in recent years, including a coffeebar outside the city in Sudbury this past winter.
There may be a silver lining, I’m calling it the Miracle of Newton Centre Peet’s. According to the Globe, Assistant Manager Faye Goldman recently partnered with Central, a restaurant right across the street. ( Central is open at 4pm, for the dinner crowd, and so Goldman has opened a cafe there during the daytime hours. So far this looks to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe some Peet’s loyalists will strike up a similar partnership with a restaurant or business on Harvard St? I hope so. The Peet’s rumor mill told me that there may be something Peet-y coming to The Arcade. I already have a name for it: For Peet’s Sake.
Monday, January 14, 2019

The (Dis)Comfort Zone

I realized recently that I rarely stray outside my comfort zone. It takes such an effort for me to keep going to classes, for example, or anything at night. Parties on weekends are a supreme effort at times, though I’m usually glad I went. But why is there such an effort behind going out, forward?

Anxiety runs in my family, I believe all of us but Ned suffer from it. Mine comes in waves, where the terrible times make me feel like old wood, about to crack and splinter. I think Nat’s is like this, too. When he was a baby and had some new food in front of him, he said, “Don’t worry hot dogs.” Trying so hard to self-soothe; his poignant efforts still make me swoon with pride and love.

But I don’t allow the same compassion for myself. When my anxiety keeps me inside I feel like a worthless human being. Even though my life’s circumstances allow me to do this, to do nothing, or to do whatever I want, I feel like I should be doing more.

I used to be so different and maybe that was because the boys were still home and I needed to get out of the house. One of Benji’s first sentences was “I go mee-in,” and then he’d hide, imitating his suddenly missing Mommy. That guy has always been able to just nail it, even when he was only two.

This was back when I was on our town’s School Committee and I was very politically active. My whole life seemed to center around my boys and school, and making the school system work for them. There were no autism classrooms at all. There was bullying going on. There were few options for boys who were not into sports. So I never questioned my schedule’s demands, and I was really fulfilled from all that.

Actually my life centered around writing as well — it has since I was 21. I’ve always had a writing progress and mission in my adult life. So when I was not doing politics and mothering — or actually, right when I was, because I’d take out my laptop and write anytime, any place — I was writing. The writing was about autism, parenting, education, so it was all the same loop. But when my first book came out, there was a break in my sense of self. I couldn’t just keep my writing inside my laptop; it was out there now. I started traveling a lot, giving talks and speeches. But I had also started pulling inward more, closing off my more public self. I found bellydance at this time — age 43 — as well as mountain biking.

I guess riding my bike was the first time I ever really enjoyed my own company. The time spent alone, just pushing myself around and up hills left little room in my body for thought. So I was just kind of being, just breathing in my body with no coherent thoughts except, “stupid cars.” I was discovering a new skill as well as the supreme happiness of meditation. Peace. But there was anxiety involved, because the only way to mountain bike is to throw yourself onto the trails, down the hills, over the roots and rocks. Push past or through the fear.

Dance was a starkly different kind of being inside myself. Many bellydancers don’t do it alone, they go to haflas and dance together, they go to the Arab clubs and take classes with each other. And of course they perform. I on the other hand have only performed twice, and both were semi-private recital-type events. And a huge deal for me. Each time I thought about it, I’d want to cancel. And yet I am entranced by performing, by dancing a choreography in front of people, in a beautiful costume. I just don’t know what it takes to let go that way, though. Even when I performed, I was following a script, and there was very little organic flow in it, just moves strung together to music. I mean, I know I looked good and performed well technically, but the performance was not what I want it to be.

I want to be like my teacher Natassia, who is half my age and has absorbed the dance into her skin, her heart and soul. She works so hard, but when she dances she makes it look — not easy, but happy and alive. Showing your happiness and contentment while doing that incredibly difficult movement is the essence of great dance.

She told us yesterday about the importance of understanding the folklore, too, the culture, behind the music and the dance. How important it is to greet the audience first, not showcasing your skills at all but moving around the room excitedly. Then, certain rhythms (e.g., Saiidi, Khaleegi, Chiftetelli) in the music signal certain types of moves, determined by where they have come from. She was transported by her own lesson, she looked like she had tears in her eyes just thinking of all the dancers who have come before her. Everyone in that class felt what she was feeling, and wanted to know what she knew. She makes you want to sink right into those ancient sandy lands and watch from the ground, the dancers from way back. She wants us to feel awed by these intricate moves and melodies, and to know which rhythms indicate which style — humbled but also empowered by this knowledge, to let it inform and color our dance. For we are linked to those people by our love of the dance. She urges you to shed your American shell and try out the shape of a very different place, and time. But she gives you that form with such love that you are not really afraid to try it on.

So those classes are the perfect combination of pushing outwards, of new comfort zone boundaries, with a cushioning of support and even love. But still I feel a small discomfiture when it’s time to go, and I want to understand why, what is keeping me from simply flying off to be part of that world? Maybe there is always a little bit of fear that lights the fire of pleasure? Maybe we need that spark of anxiety to awaken our souls to hunger for the new, and take it in?

Perhaps a pinch of anxiety is what propels us forward, but too much of it weights us down and puts us in a tailspin. So for now, when I imagine performing there’s just too much anxiety and I can’t plunge in.  Just getting out is good. I do wish, though, that I could get to Nat’s attitude of “It’s a different, that’s okay.” Although he doesn’t quite believe it, he works towards that, and often he succeeds. He’s probably out of his comfort zone almost every moment of his life, and yet manages to move forward, and to shine, dancing in the light whenever he can, pushing through the forest, and learning new skills and joys.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Connecting is everything

I talked about you today. I was thinking about our new agreement, that we follow the schedules carefully, use the timer, and stay consistent. We didn’t make this a formal agreement, of course, it was one suggested by Miyabe and Elaine, and then underlined by your insistence to keep the world from becoming chaos.

I’ve always known you wanted that, but it was my belief back then that we had to make you flexible, that we wanted to be able to be our impulsive selves, to be a family of five, and not just three. I wanted your brothers lives and rights to be as strong and vital as yours.

I also learned a long time ago that I had to stay on your side. Not like staying on your side as opposed to someone else, but stay with you, lay aside all of my needs other than the one to connect with you. It’s more than a need, though; it is my job. The most important thing in my world is my family and that includes you.

Today I thought more about what staying on your side is. I found myself looking back over three years, back to the time when you were hurt and we didn’t know how or why. We took you back home with us. I am so glad we did that because I think that was exactly what you needed. Your anxiety has been through the roof since then and today I realized that it probably is your trauma speaking. You never had a chance to really work through and make sense of the broken ribs, the tremendous pain your were in. The fear of whoever did that to you. So of course wouldn’t those emotions and burdens stay with you? Doesn’t it make sense that anxiety propels you skyward, doesn’t let you go, keeps you barely tethered to the rest of us?

So our agreement is that you stay with us all weekend, every weekend. It’s what you like best. We were trying, before, to get you flexible about where you’d be on the weekend but you let us know that this kind of uncertainty was a trigger.

Now, and back in my best parenting moments, I need to be completely present for you. I need to boil down to the very essence of mothering. I feel like I have to inhabit your soul for a little bit to give you the connection you need. You’ve always said, “you” when you mean “I.” It’s always been hugely complicated for you, being Other with people, especially me. I don’t think you want that feeling at all. That alien floatiness.

And so, each weekend, I need to get myself to the point where I am no longer afraid or bored or resentful or distracted. I am just with you, and it is very small and quiet but it is everything. Because you feel it when I’m with you. When we’re like that I can simply rest next to you and just be, and watch you just be, too. You feel that oneness and it calms you and you have touched the ground again. Staying on your sides means we ground each other, and then we can face anything.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

From Tribal Fusion Bellydance to Tolstoy

I’ve always been fascinated by extreme opposites working together at the same time. I love the way classical, orderly Enlightenment Europe morphed into its opposite, stormy, histrionic Romanticism. In philosophy, music, poetry, and painting. Late eighteenth century rationalism caves into moody sturm und drang of the early nineteenth century. The symmetry of Mozart into the surprises of Beethoven. Voltaire, Rousseau and then Hegel to Marx.

Whew. That was a long time ago, in history and in my life. I thought those interests of mine had gone underground in the last few decades of my life, disappearing into autism advocacy and public policy, mountain biking, and bellydance. For me, one opposite pursuit slowly bleeds into the distant other. Until I recently realized the connections my subconscious makes between one and the others, I hadn’t understood the obsession I have with Datura online Tribal Fusion bellydance classes. Tribal Fusion is an amalgam of two streams of bellydance: American Tribal and Classic Raqs Sharqi (Dance of the East, or what we normally think of as bellydance). American Tribal Style (ATS) originated in San Francisco in the 1970’s — hippie-like and organic, round and flowing — a completely new branch of bellydance that incorporates a lot of ancient folksy styles and traditions along with a whole new vibe of relaxed group dance, following a leader.

Fusion is a spinoff of ATS in that it adds in more of the Golden Age cabaret style of bellydance combined with a kind of steampunk/new wave thing.

Tribal Fusion is earthy-metallic. Black lace and pewter. Big ruffled skirts with black and white striped tights showing through. It is not sparkly and pink. There is a return to the good old Lebanese-style relevé, but also the traditional flat-footed country Saiidi style.

I can’t understand why I am attracted to Fusion but I guess every passion evolves over time, and I’ve been bellydancing for thirteen years. I sew sparkly girly Egyptian-style costumes, but these days I dance Tribal Fusion.

Lately I’ve been dancing for an hour or more to this stuff. Tired, aching, but in the zone. Arms almost straight out, shoulder height, bellyrolls up-to-down, down-to-up, body figure 8’s, and 3/4 shimmies on relevé. When you’re doing Fusion it sometimes looks like your body is a Hydra, composed of many snakes moving in all sorts of directions. You simply boil with movement.

My body is 56 years old and I feel very proud of the moves I can make these days. Just today I mastered belly flutters and 3/4 shimmy Arabic style. Hips shaking at one speed, torso rolling at another, feet on tip-toe stepping delicately one behind the other, arms waving as gracefully as possible.

Why am I going on and on about this? Because dancing it is not even enough of an outlet for what I’m feeling. And I’m glad that I can finally kvetch out even this erratic blog post, because all I have been able to do lately is dance and then stare at my screen. And write about autism? I can’t, I just can’t. More on that later. (I hope)

Dance for me is the opposite extreme of me as autism advocate. No thinking involved. It is just movement born of brain energy pushed into one area of the body and then another. The music doesn’t even make sense (to me, a North American) the way Western music does. The ribbony melodies, the exotic instruments, the trance-producing drumming — they are the antitheses of writing about autism. Which is the antithesis of writing my Master’s thesis which was, of course, about one particular symbol of Rational-to-Romantic thought, Leo Tolstoy.

And yet you will find that my website’s tagline is a quote from Tolstoy, turned on its head.

But — that quote was Tolstoy during his Rational phase, before he became a mystic.

I wonder what Tolstoy would have made of bellydance?