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Bertha's List: October Edition
To remember is to live again.

That is exactly what my newsletter has been about: chronicling those moments in my life that would have otherwise lapsed into oblivion. But as October marked the three year anniversary of Bertha’s List I wondered if this was a good stopping point. The pressure to produce “inspirational” narrative had become overwhelming.  Every month I procrastinated more and more between writings. It was starting to feel like a chore. Even if I stopped altogether, who would it really affect or care other than me?

As the dregs of a rough September still lingered, I craved a fresh start. Since I’d been trying to grow out my pixie chopping off my hair was not an option. The next best thing was a new vision board. I’d kept the same one for two years and it needed a cosmic make-over.  In the middle of the new board, surrounded by pictures of Jon Hamm and a Manhattan zip code (any day now, Universe!) was a picture of a Zen circle with the single word “Breathe.” What I needed most was patience. The patience to wait for the callback that may never come. Or the patience required at a master level of self-control to not explode in the holding room when you’ve missed your audition slot by a measly three minutes. Especially after having trekked across town for it and skipped out on an hour of work. But still you don’t lose faith. You show up anyway to those so-wrong-for-the-part-they’ll-be-crazy-to-cast-me calls. You feed the good dog. You schlep it up to 132nd for Antigone rehearsals ready to play, feeling so grateful that your playmates are the same actors you call friends; your FIU family. Being surrounded by that much creativity inevitably breeds inspiration which in turn breeds creativity which in turn breeds inspiration ad infinitum. Which is how a night of hanging out on a couch in Brooklyn turned into the resurgence of a screenplay I’d written years ago. No sooner said than done, we dusted off the script and had the original director on board.  Apart from having the perfect location we had very little else. We didn’t have a cast, a production team, nor a single penny allotted to the budget. The challenge seemed insurmountable yet terribly exciting. We didn’t know how we were going to do it which only fueled our impetus that we had to. Because we were artists and because we took to heart Anne Bogart’s words of wisdom: “Do not wait for enough time or money to accomplish what you think you have in mind. Work with what you have RIGHT NOW. Work with the people around you RIGHT NOW…”

Friday night dinner at Scalino. Our friend Jennifer was visiting for the weekend and over a plate of pappardelle the conversation jumped around from gluten-free diets to why it had been so long since my last newsletter. I said that September would probably be the last one. Maybe I’d outgrown it. Maybe what was once a tool for self-discovery had become a source of self-inflicted pressure trying to write something worthy of a reader’s time. To this Jen wryly replied, in the way only Jen can do wry, that she enjoyed them and looked forward to them every month popping up in her inbox. I swallowed another bite of pasta with a side of realization. There should indeed be a high level of expectation when creating art. If not for myself then to, at the very least, repay such kind words of loyalty. On Saturday we watched the sun set from the Highline and we carved a jack-o’-latern named Rudy. It was something worth writing about.

Usually my morning commutes are pretty uneventful: a smooth 50 minute ride with a book du jour. This was not to be one of those days. The train was running with delays and stalling between stations. On the second stop a white haired gentleman found his way to the empty seat on my right. He sat down with a huff, “This is unbelievable.” “Can you believe this? Unbelievable”, he kept mumbling, “The trains didn’t use to be like this.” After a few non-committal sounds of commiseration on my part and a deeper burrowing into the pages of my book, he went quiet. “I’m sorry to have bothered you it’s just that sometimes you need someone to talk to.” I didn’t know what to say. If New York had taught me anything is that the city was a holding pen for crazies one should be weary of. Yet here was someone asking for the most basic of human needs: interaction. My instinct for protection battled against my sense of compassion. Wasn’t compassion after all the very thing I aspired to when logging all those Tuesday nights meditating at Tibet House? Compassion was not grasped on the cushion it was attained in other people. I took a breath, hoped he wasn’t certifiable, and stole a sideways glance. He sat slightly stopped over, hands folded on his lap, and he smelled like a forgotten library- yellow pages and moldy mahogany- my favorite. Something in his eyes reminded me of my father. “Yeah”, I said timidly, “the trains are unbearable. Do you go to Manhattan often?” Clyde had lived in Brooklyn his whole life and no he didn’t travel to Manhattan often or leave his apartment much for that matter. He was a Catholic, Army veteran who after the war got a job in Wall Street manning the room-sized computers. Most of his family had passed or moved away so now he spent his time taking pictures which is why he was heading to 34th Street- to buy a new lens for his camera. We talked about what New York was like in the 60’s, how much he loved riding his bike, and how he didn’t like cussing nor reality TV. When we made it to my stop at Union Square he asked if I didn’t want to tag along with him. I declined (flirty little bugger!) but I wished him luck finding his lens and I thanked him.  He may have been the one that needed to talk but I was the one who benefited all the more for it. Later that same day, as I left work for rehearsal, I crammed in the uptown 1 train next to an older couple. Script in hand, I was mouthing my lines when the husband turned to me, “Need help memorizing?” I apologized if I had bothered them and he said he used to act himself and he would love to help. After two quick run-throughs (it was another long train ride) he seemed impressed that it was a classical piece and commended me on my diction. I asked if they lived in the neighborhood but they were only visiting. When he was younger he’d lived in New York for a while and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. He said it was the loneliest year of his life. I wished them a happy stay and as I left the station I thought about those two subway encounters, both in one day. It was something worth remembering.

The air in autumn is charged with a special kind of electricity that foretells magic. Maybe it’s the imminence of the witching hour on All Hallows Eve or the way the leaves hold a secret promise. The crisp wind calls for chunky scarves and cozying up to childhood favorites like Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic. This magic time is also my birthday. As I shed another year of my twenties with each coming autumn I become melancholic. It’s not so much a sadness as much as a keen awareness of the passage of time. The pathos of knowing that each year is one year further from your childhood.  When the adults take care of the scary part, like aging. That was something your grandparents did.  But then one day you wake up and you’re the same age your mother once was when she had you. Time is a slippery thing. Twenty eight years gone in the blink of an eye. 

For the big celebration I envisioned a fabulous night worthy of old New York, full of food and drinks, so I made reservations at a Carrie Bradshaw favorite, Pastis. But when a table for twelve proved to be a scheduling headache I settled for Bucca di Beppo. It was nowhere near as fancy (read: trading Marchesa for Merona) but it would accommodate us without having to boot anyone off the invitation list. Little did I know my wonderful friends had done some planning of their own. They hijacked me for the afternoon and we ended up at Make Meaning where I helped them design and bake my Sex and the City-inspired birthday cake. That night at Bucca, sitting around a long table, we drank sangria, laughed uproariously at inappropriate sex jokes, read tarot cards, and ate pink cake. Single and fabulous, exclamation point! (Brownie points if you get that reference). As the plates were cleared, the remaining chunk of cake was wrapped up in its pretty box and we headed out into the autumn air. We said our goodbyes and headed home. Sitting on the sidewalk was a man who asked if I could spare any change. I kept walking with my head down because again no need to encourage the crazies but I stopped mid-way, turned on my heels and walked back, “Sir, I don’t have any change but I do have a piece of cake that hasn’t been touched. Would you like some cake?” He smiled, “Sure!”. I left him the box and continued to the Q train. It was like sharing my birthday with the entire city. I figured that was something worth remembering. Maybe even something writing about.

Buddha in the grass

"There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can."

–Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

Copyright © 2012 Bertha Leal, All rights reserved.
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