Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Gratitude

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and I know I have much to be grateful for. Minor difficulties crop up constantly, but that’s to be expected. I try not to dwell on the small hurdles. And while I also try not to give too much weight to those moments that seem magical, there they are nevertheless. They consistently tell me that I’m doing the right thing – that if I can give thanks for nothing else, I can appreciate the path I’ve walked and the road ahead.

The essay that follows fell onto my keyboard in March of 2002. Which is to say, this piece of writing is older than the keyboard I am currently using. But it remains one of my favorite tales of faith and of fate. I share it now in the spirit of Thanksgiving…

Life’s Magic

The other night, I was in one of those moods. So I opened the hall closet, and I scanned the possibilities: a stack of journals dating back to 1972; scripts from sit-coms, plays, and movies; starts of novels; short stories and essays; loose-leaf journal entries; just plain chrons…

I decided to pull down from the shelf a small, unlabeled box. I didn’t know what was in it, but I knew I’d find a treasure or two. Once I opened it, I saw the little composition books that I filled when I was probably 26 and 27.

At the time, I was reading voraciously. And although I didn’t realize it then, the authors I had been drawn to – Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, Richard Adams – wrote from a metaphysical perspective.

I was so moved by what they wrote that I always had a pen handy when I was reading. I would use the pen to star paragraphs, to draw lines in the margin, to provide some reminder to myself: Return Here.

After reading the first two or three of these novels, I decided to take it a step further. And so, in little composition books, I began recording the lines and paragraphs that were particularly resonant. It was a relaxing, meditative task, sitting there on my couch/perch, holding the fountain pen that had become my lucky charm. I think, too, that I thought the task would serve me ultimately. I believed that if these writers’ magical words traveled through my magical pen, I would elevate my ability to write. I would absorb not only their wisdom, but also their eloquence.


And so the other night, I came upon the little composition books. I opened one, and I began to read. This particular book began with passages I had copied from Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi.

Even after reading most of the passages – and I must have copied 50 or so of them – I couldn’t completely recall the book. I did remember that it was obtuse; certainly heavier than Richard Adams, and not nearly as prurient as Henry Miller. And I kind of got a recollective sense of the plot – a boy goes to an other-world prep school, where he learns wisdom, where he learns the meaning of life and what matters.

As I read the passages that I had rewritten in my own pen, I came across a reference to the Glass Bead Game, but that first appearance didn’t strike me. I simply remembered that such was the name of the game that was played – and mastered – by disciples of the Magister Ludi school.

I kept reading.

As I continued and nearly reached the end of this group of entries, the phrase appeared again, this time as the title of a poem: “The Glass Bead Game.”

This time, it stood out.

GLASS BEADS. God, I know what they are! Glass beads. They had entered my life a few years back. They became part of my life – toward what end, I could not know.

With unexpected intrigue, I read “The Glass Bead Game” – the Hesse poem that I had recorded nearly 20 years before:

“We re-enact with reverent attention
The universal chord, the master’s harmony,
Evoking in unsullied communion
Minds and times of highest sanctity.

We draw upon the iconography
Whose mystery is able to contain
The boundlessness, the storm of all existence
Give chaos form, and hold our lives in rein.

The pattern sings like crystal constellations,
And when we tell our beads, we serve the whole,
And cannot be dislodged or misdirected,
Held in the orbit of the Cosmic Soul.”


I could not have known, when I held my magical pen and recorded those magical words, that nearly two decades later, I would play my own glass bead game. I could not have known then how profound Hesse was.

When I first embarked on what I have come to call “the unbearable lightness of beading,” I knew full well that it was meditative. I knew it was settling. And I knew, even though my bank account would dispute it, that it was moving me forward. I couldn’t prove it with facts; I could only feel it in my soul.

And now, I am realizing it. The beads were not about making jewelry or launching a website or becoming some sort of designer. The beads were about getting back to me and my destiny. The beads were about welcoming my right brain back into the world that is my Self; allowing the artist in me to have her space.

The right brain is back now, and she is not fighting with the left. There is balance between the two. Balance that allows me to do what I do well – for myself and for others. Balance that allows me to absorb the magic of life and the blessings I have been given. Balance that allows me to learn constantly and to recognize those moments and those people that make the learning happen.

The glass bead game… at the moment, I feel that I’ve won.

But, I am a process person.

And so I know, this game ain’t over yet.


Postscript: for an abridged look at my experience with the “unbearable lightness of beading,” please visit my website at www.katiegatesdesigns.com.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Laughing at OCD

I appreciate that, for some people, obsessive compulsive disorder is no laughing matter. In one manifestation of OCD, an afflicted individual must constantly stop his car, get out of it, and check to make sure he didn’t just run over some formerly living thing. In another, the disordered person is compelled to wash her hands so frequently that the skin becomes raw and is rid of its capacity to stave off bad bacteria.

I feel for these people. I really do. A brain disorder can disrupt personal freedom in a big way. It can become the monster in the room that breaks deals and thwarts growth.

My manifestation of OCD, however, is downright comical, and my former husband (whom we’ll call Ben) knew how to make us both laugh at it. Once, when we were shopping at Ralphs together, I tossed a box of tampons in our cart. “Did you check the date?” he asked, with deadpan delivery.

An hour or so later, after we had returned home and put away the groceries, I went into the living room. Ben stayed behind in the kitchen to make a sandwich. We had just bought peanut butter, jelly, and bread, so how could he resist?

After a few minutes, Ben entered the living room. He was carrying the jar of peanut butter and wearing an expressionless face. He approached the couch, where I was sitting. And as he slowly opened the jar, he asked, with feigned concern, “Do you think this is okay?”

He then held out the opened jar. Written into the smooth top of the fresh peanut butter was the word, “DIE.”

Quite a card, that ex-husband o’ mine. With the tine of a fork, he could make me laugh at myself.

These days, I share OCD laughs with my neighbor and friend, Neil*. We are afflicted by similar manifestations of the disorder. Which is to say, we both tend to check things multiple times (particularly things that might catch on fire). And we share the concern that otherwise edible foods and beverages might be tainted.

One afternoon a few years ago, I was returning home, and Neil heard me approach the courtyard we share. Before I’d had a chance to head upstairs to my apartment, he flung open his door across the way. He had that deer-in-headlights look – clearly upset about something.

He then explained that his cat had just walked across his desk, and when she did so, her tail brushed against his teeth. He wondered if…

Neil didn’t need to explain. Adapting a comforting tone, I said, “I’ve got some Listerine upstairs. Do you wanna come up and have a quick gargle?”

He thought that was a good idea, and so we headed up my stairs together.

Once we were in the kitchen, I pulled a small glass out of the cabinet and filled it with about a quarter-inch of Listerine. I handed it to him. Then, like two athletes in some relay event, we crossed paths. He headed to the sink as I went in the other direction.

But my eyes widened in a big way when he reached for the cold-water knob and began, “I’ll just dilute—”

“Not THAT water!” I screamed, interrupting him.

With no further ado, we both doubled over laughing.

Neil’s concern for what his cat’s tail might have left on his teeth was trumped in that moment by my fear of unfiltered L.A. water.

Crazy advises crazy. Nuts is there to provide solace to nuts. Our fears are absurd, and we both know it. But they’re our fears. Our often humorous fears. We own them, and we’re there for each other.

We’re there to laugh together at the people we just can’t help but be.


*not his real name

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Lee Marvin Story

Imagine a world where you can’t rent movies or look up some info online.

In 1979, that was the world I was living in. And that’s where my tale begins…

It was early December in NYC. Which means it was that crisp, holiday time, and everyone was in a festive mood. My good friend, John, had some out-of-town guests, and because I was living in a rather spacious apartment, we volunteered my living room for the three guys’ crash pad.

After a day-and-a-half of running around town, we spent Sunday evening in. Just hanging around the living room, talking about whatever. The conversation turned to favorite movies, and John’s brother, Tom, mentioned that his was Cat Ballou. As we began to riff on the movie, we remembered that Lee Marvin played two roles: the drunk (Kid Shelleen), and… what was the name of the other character? He had a silver nose, and he was a bad guy! What was his name?

We couldn’t think of it, and so we moved on. But, for John and me, moving on was only temporary. For months after the three houseguests returned to Michigan, John and I continued to obsess over the unanswered trivia question. We’d quiz people at parties we’d attend. And, week after week, I’d peruse the TV listings in the paper to see if Cat Ballou might be that night’s late, late movie on network television.

I’d also check the movie listings in the Times and The New Yorker. There were lots of revival theatres back then, and it would have been fun to see the old western on the big screen. But… it never showed up.

Why were we so obsessed with getting the answer to this question?

Time passed… and the following July, I had tickets to see a production of Camelot at Lincoln Center. Richard Burton reprising his role, and Christine Ebersol playing Guenevere. I met my friend, Audrey, at the box office, where we picked up our tickets. Then, we entered the large lobby. We had a little time to mill about before heading up to our cheap seats, and as we both took in the array of people, I noticed a large man, about ten feet away.

“Look!” I said to Audrey. “Lee Marvin!”

Then, it dawned on me: He’ll know!

Without thinking twice about it, I raced over to him. And then, in a truly childlike move, I tugged ever so gently on the sleeve of his camel-colored jacket. “Mr. Marvin?” I said, my voice easily three octaves higher than it usually is. “Mr. Marvin?”

He looked down at me (not in a classist way; rather, in the way of someone who is just that much taller).

“Yes?” he said, his voice large, the word seeming to have so many more than three letters.

I was stunned, and I must have looked incredibly frightened.

“Yes?” he reiterated, his presence so far above me that his words echoed as God’s might.

(I was temporarily frozen by the reality of the moment: Lee Marvin was waiting for me to say something!)

“Um, yes, Mr. Marvin,” I began, sounding like a chipmunk on amphetamines, “Um, anyway, these friends of mine and I have been obsessed for a while with a trivia question, and…”

“Yes?” he asked again, still looking down upon me (not unkindly) and filling the time while I took a breath.

“And so we’re just wondering, Mr. Marvin, in Cat Ballou, what’s the name of that guy you played – not Kid Shelleen, we know about him, but the other guy… the guy with the silver nose?”

“Tim Strawn,” he said.

“Tim Strawn?” I repeated, my voice still sounding like I’d just inhaled a boatload of helium.

“Tim Strawn,” he confirmed, maintaining his solid standing and deep vocal register.

“Thank you,” I squeaked.

And as I scurried away, all I could think was, “I can’t wait to tell John!”

I got the answer! I got it from the man himself!