Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Nana Achieves Satori

                                                       "This is a true story." ~ Peter

This is a true story

No matter what some people say
Money matters.
It is difficult to get through life without suffering some damage along the way,
Never having enough money to fully shelter oneself and ones family
places an additional weight upon one,
imparting a stoop, hesitancy, or baseless bravado to an already cloudy life.
So it was with my mother.
And yet, as it sometimes occurs to the least likely candidate,
My mother attained, or so I believe, at the very last moment,
A state of Satori.
Her name was Jean, a name she disliked for its brevity; JEAN,
its harsh opening sound; JE,
 and a closing consonant of no charm; N.
When her grandchildren came along she asked to be called Nana,
it sounded kind of French, it had two syllables, and ended with a lovely A.
We all called her Nana, and so will I.

Picture this;
A young couple is mugging for the camera on the beach at Coney Island.
The man- my father- is smiling, he stands on the sand,
legs wide apart, his hands are on his hips
as if he just accomplished something.
Maybe he did
my mother is lying down on the sand beneath him, in a pose typical of the 1930’s. She too is smiling and she is looking out at the ocean.
They are at the beach. It is summer. They are happy.

Now fifty years later picture this.
An old lady is finished shopping for the day and is carrying two shopping bags towards her place on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Queens that runs from one corner of the block to the other corner.
The bags have been used before.
The bags are full and they are heavy
and she stoops as she goes along,
keeping her eyes on the pavement in front of her because of the cracks and things lying on the ground.
She’s fallen down before.
Plus she doesn’t see very well, plus all the other things that have come her way since the first photograph I mentioned was taken.

On another day, something more interesting is happening.
Nana is walking to a discount department store; Alexander's.
It's at least fifteen blocks away from where she lives
But she is a walker, so that's nothing.
She is on her way to Alexander's
to buy some clothing she hid a couple of months ago.
That's how she shops.
It's easy.
She showed my wife how to do it.

Here is how Nana does it.
Find something you like but it's too expensive.
She had a great eye for fabrics, cut and famous designer labels so the clothing really was quite nice.
Now, check the label for the date that the item automatically drops in price.
Write that on something.
My mother used her empty gum wrappers.
Now keep wandering around the store looking at more things.
When you pass a rack that has the same kind of clothing (especially the same color and fabric) but a very different size,
Hide your dress right there.
Do this many times the same day.
In a month or even more,
check your gum wrappers,
go back to Alexander's and find the things you hid all over the place.
Most will be gone, but not all.
Buy those at great savings.
My younger sister tells me that Nana sometimes took her along for these excursions and that the sales ladies got on to her,
tailing her at a safe distance and brought the squirreled clothing back where it belonged.
But not all.

She did worse things than that.

For instance, in our house you couldn't say shut up.
When aroused, she or really anyone in the house
could say any curse word you could imagine.
Any curse word.
But if you said shut up, even to your sister,
 a deadly silence would fall over the apartment.
 My mother would point like a dog points.
Nobody would move, except my mother.
She advanced in slow motion towards where that sound came from.

She would say, What did you just say?" approaching closer to her prey.
"What did you say?" preparing to strike.
"Did you just say, shut up?"
Then things began to happen.

I'll describe another one or two more of her approaches to life
and then I'll tell you how she achieved Satori.
Nana had many more qualities that might cause you to believe that such a person was not capable of achieving Satori,
and you would not be alone in this;
no one who knew her could suspect this of her.
However they say this is often the case with Satori.
This tale is also true of course.  

Because she was a poor sleeper, Nana read a lot.
One book a night, easy.
On her way home from work she would stop off at the library
and pick up some books.
But the library usually was not open when she went to work in the morning.
And so she retained a number of these books.
Several years passed and she moved from a garden apartment in Kew Gardens
to a smaller apartment in Forest Hills.
Things continued to happen, bad things, and she had to move again.
She had a stroke, she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t talk.
Bing, like that.

No more shopping
no more reading
no more talking
no more walking

No more yelling
no more hitting
no more cooking
no more playing cards
sitting down for something to eat
no more thinking about the kids, what they need, what she might bring them the next time she comes to visit. 
No more of just about everything.

Nana has begun her approach to Satori
but still has a few items to attend to.

We placed her in a nursing facility not far from my sister.
Horrible  horrible   horrible   horrible 
but what could we do.

We closed up her little apartment.
We gave away most of her things, took a few items for each of our family’s,
things we grew up with things, things we thought our own children might like to remember her by, things that their children might like.
The bathroom, kitchenette dining alcove living room and bedroom cleared out swept and mopped,
we moved on to the closets.
Having lived with Nana before starting out on our won, we knew what we might be facing.

Opening the doors we were met by a densely interwoven wall.
The foundation of the wall, several feet high, was constructed of
shoes and boots and belts and hangers and boxes and shopping bags and food and department store plastic bags and umbrellas and canes, and ironing boards
photo albums, all now amalgamated into a new union.
Judging by the styles of the shoes and boots and the type faces of the bags and boxes, the foundation must have been laid down some years ago.

Upon the foundation was a vertically constructed palisade layer.
Here clothing was fitted so close together, we had to pry out several items to get the thing undone, marveling at the strength and ingenuity of this seemingly frail woman to build such a sturdy  repository for her triumphant excursions.
On top of this, and reaching to the ceiling, was yet another layer differently joined together and of different objects. Here not only were there things one might expect of a cloths closet, such as clothing, but also things that we guessed she just no longer wanted around or broke and she didn’t have the heart to make them leave her apartment.
No need to list such items here; think a the stuff you have thrown out over the past ten years, now cram all that into the top shelf of all your closets, see?
But here again, and you must understand that she was not only quite blind and a bit lame and weak but also quite small, so it puzzled us how she got up on a chair or box to reach that high and to jam so many odd shaped things together
And not fall out again, even injure her. Or, perhaps, occasionally it did.

After all the clothing and such were pried from the closets
we came upon yet another wall.
This one was made up of books.
Library books.
Remember I said she was a terrific reader, and a poor sleeper, and so one book a night? And remember I said she was able to take books out of the library but found it inconvenient to return them?
Well, now we learned how she managed to fit this all into her busy days
And nights.
Not wanting to create a fuss, we tied all the books up and brought them to the library
at night.

To return to her stroke and the advent of her achieving Satori.
Just like that she couldn't talk
and she couldn't walk.

Breath in, you are the person you always were and will be forever.
Breath out, and that person just left forever.
Now you are a new person who you never met.
No one ever met this person before.
No one knows that you are still the person who you used to be,
but who can blame them for not noticing.

Up until now you and your body were the same.
Each was another name for the same thing; you.
Now you are over here and your body is over there.
It's not even your body that is over there.
It's a body, but it's not exactly yours.

You might say it is other peoples body;
the people who say hello to it, the people who feed it, bring it to  the bathroom, who wipe it, who roll it over, lift it dress it, pat it dry, show it pictures, ask it how it feels, put their hands in its hair, fix its collar, say we'll see you later.

Even you do this.
You put food into it's (your!) mouth
and its (your!) mouth that can't close all the way so some of the food falls out.
Your son or daughter or any one else in the room picks the food off your chest, wipes things stuck to your lips and chin and neither you nor that person say anything.

Have you ever had a person much younger than you
who is of a different religion than you
a different color
a different sex

wipe your behind?

Maybe it wasn't the stroke at all the enabled Nana to achieve Satori.
Maybe it was just about other people touching her body
caring for her body nicely
in ways no one else in her life ever cared for her.
The woman who was the woman when her body and her Self were still one.

Picture this:
An old Jewish lady who has no fewer poor opinions
of non Jews, or of Blacks, or Hispanics, or Republicans
than any other old Jewish woman,
is being cared for, touched, dressed, undressed, washed, picked up, put down
by a non Jewish lady
a Black young lady.

Inside of what is left of that woman knows all this.
The young Black non Jewish woman knows all this too.

The Black young woman toilets, baths, dries, powders, puts the old Jewish lady who can't speak, can't walk, can't dress or undress herself, can't see well, can't hear well, in a night gown
 and puts the old woman into bed for the night.

Tucked into bed, the little bed room lights shut off
the nursing home lights and sounds dimmed for the day,
the young woman gets up on the bed,
lies down next to the old woman.
The young woman speaks of her son and how hard it is to raise a young child in America.
The old woman can’t speak, but she responds by singing Yiddish songs that she remembers sung to comfort her when she was a child by her mother.
The two women
talk and sing to each other until one or the other falls asleep.

A final story in which Nana finally achieves Satori.

Nana waits in her wheelchair at the doorway to her room for your visit.
When you come in she laughs.
Bringing your hands to her face
she kisses them a long while
smelling them like a bear smells her cubs.

She wants to hear about the children, about Marion, you.
She says,  So? So? And you tell her about her children and grandchildren.
After every comma and period in your story she says
How? Why? And? And ? More. Say more.

Wheeled out of the home into fresh air
she lifts her face to the sky, with her good hand sweeping across the parking lot
Nana says   Wonderful.   Beautiful.   Oh Beautiful.

Before attaining Satori, Nana had one remaining desire to fulfill
and that would be that.
She wanted to see her three grown children all together,
to see that her children loved each other.

Her three children,
Now married and with their own children,
lived in as many states.
For the first time in decades
They came together to share a meal with their mom.
They took her out of the nursing home for the afternoon
to a Chinese restaurant in a nearby mall.
It took the better part of the afternoon
because of all the funny stories, the ribbing, the laughter.

Having achieved everything she desired in life
and having everything else taken from her

Nana died

~ Peter London


  1. Thank you for expressing this, for sharing it. Absolutely precious.

  2. Thank you Peter for your honesty and your beauty. You inspire me to be honest. I am rereading your book No More Second Hand Art and am breaking through creative barriers. This morning I was reading and marking passages in the book and I said out loud, "Thank you Peter!" I don't know you, but I feel like I do. I finally feel there's someone out there who understands what it is to be creatively human. Will you be offering any classes in the Boston area any time soon? I would love to attend. Thank you and be well!


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