In Praise of Tea: Everyday Magic, Day 835

keep-calm-and-have-a-cup-of-tea-90It started with my grandfather as we watched westerns on the magic black-and-white TV, and he sipped his cup of tea with just a touch of milk and sugar. I was always on his lap, and he always had a plate of butter cookies, the round kind with scalloped edges and a hole in the center that he let me dip into his tea and eat. “Bonanza” blasted around us in the comfort of tea and our time.

By the time my grandfather was gone, and I was scrambling through the thorny brush of my teen years, it was my own cup of tea. Tea with milk and sugar, and when I could get them, those great cookies too.

In college, Kathy introduced me to Constant Comment, which I lived on along with some of my roommates in a big house full of two many women in Columbia, MO. Early mornings? Tea. Mid-afternoon slumps? Tea. Broken-hearted trauma drama processing every nuance into the ground? More tea.

Throughout young adulthood, I was all about the tea. Black tea, herbal tea, freshly mixed blends of peppermint and orange peel tea. Later on, red tea, green tea, white tea, chai in many varieties. Tea for migraines, tummy aches, sadness, menstrual cramps, colds, and to de-frazzle me from the relentless of reality.

After I started popping out the babies, somehow coffee, with its muscular allure, moved into the house, and tea skittered into the background. Waking up was all about getting the coffee into me as soon as possible, which meant I usually drank it iced, and lately, with almond milk, after it was freshly made, strong and dark, with the French press. At the same time, I’ve been collecting tea pots, which, after someone gave me a new tea pot last month, I decided to display altogether in my dining room, thinking perhaps it was time to start using these.IMG_2355

That time arrived from a direction I couldn’t have anticipated. After my blood transfusion a few weeks ago, coffee seems as appealing as rawhide, and I’ve returned to tea each morning, many afternoons too. Early Grey, English Breakfast, Ginger Peach, and even Constant Comment. I’m guessing the blood now running through my veins came from a human who loves tea, reminding me that I do too.

Getting Some New Blood In My Life: Everyday Magic, Day 834

I feel as if I just returned from a trip that entailed sheer cliffs, hair-pin turns, long treks through the desert without enough water, and being lost in nightmared woodlands — because that’s pretty much what happened even if the actual locations were only my house and the local hospital.

Long story short: a week ago, I had an upper GI bleed, and became dehydrated and anemic to the point of telling an ER doctor I would kill for some IV fluids. He granted me my wish along with two pints of brand new (at least to me) blood. After two trips to the ER, a bunch of procedures, and lots of doctor visits to hear what happened and what scary amount of blood I lost, I’m okay and healing, and I’m wondering what it means to have some new blood.

Of course I have a renewed appreciation for blood donors, and for the first time as a receiver, I understand quite viscerally why we need to share the love and the blood in this world. At the same time, it’s astonishing to be wandering around with someone else’s blood helping my own multiply itself, and there’s nothing like such an experience to help me know how much we interconnect.

There’s also something about getting new blood that breaks my being open in gratitude, vulnerability, and, most of all, peace. Yet this is not the peace of all things smoothed and gentle; it’s quite the opposite. I recently read Bernie Glassman’s essay “My Wife Died Unexpectedly Last March,” a short meditation he wrote over 15 years years ago in the months following his wife’s death. When people ask him how he feels, he says, “I’m raw,” and then explains:

Raw is letting whatever happens happen, what arises, arise. Feelings, too: grief, pain, loss, a desire to disappear, even the desire to die. One feeling follows another, one sensation after the next. I just listen deeply, bear witness.

While what I went through is nothing compared to Glassman’s loss (and not a loss at all for me), the jangly peace I feel, rough-edged and tender, resonates with some of what he says about feeling raw, bearing witness. I’ve noticed that after big life sweeps — the loss of a friend or parent, a medical emergency, a long stretch of excruciating uncertainty about something essential to one’s life — land us in this utterly alive place where everything is itself, only more so, perhaps as it actually is but as we rarely see. The vibrant blue of the sky pierces everything with light. The photo of my friend Jerry, which I set up a few days ago in memorial, shimmers with his love for the world. The headaches that roll through me, the sunlight on the fake-wood floor, the quiet tropical taste of the banana, the warmth of the tea — they all stand on their own legs. Even the mouse hotel stuffed chair (what a surprise to lift that cushion), now on our porch awaiting deportation, is what it is after months of depositing a mouse a day in our house for the cats to chase.

It turns out that the new blood is actually a song to awaken the old blood of who I am beneath constructed identities and in relation to all others with a pulse. Now that my own pulse is not skyrocketing well over 140, I breathe in the miracle of healing with gratitude and peace for all.

What Is a Year?: Everyday Magic, Day 833

If 2014 was a mouse, I’d let my cats kill it, and then I would, like I do with all their usual triumphs, pick it up by the tip of its tail and fling it out into the cold, dark night. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not any kind of mammal, but just another bundle of time nearing its expiration point. Yet when I think about this year, I land on wocrisis, near-miss, loss, death, outrage, fear, and the most challenging word of all, change.

In the last year, many family and friends experienced game-changing crises, catalyzing moves home or away, job changes, long stays in hospital rooms or short stints in triage, and a whole lot of funerals. Some of the changes or deaths were slow, full of healing, grace, pain, and release. Some were sudden and shocking. Some were utterly surprising although, in retrospect, we should have been it coming.

In my life, I’ve been slogging through the potholes of grief in the last few weeks since my friend Jerry died, and earlier this fall, six people I was a little or a little more close to left the planet. Last spring, there was a heart-shaking showdown between the union and management in my workplace, fueling a binge of insomnia for me. Some of my three children underwent big shifts in jobs, homes, relationships. My mother-in-law has been in the hospital for much of December, and the tunnel through heart issues to greater health and longer life is still very much in play. Some organizations I’m very involved in needed to rescued from the brink. And I’ve tried to be present for dear ones going through some of life’s most excruciating passages.

I’ve also had more than my share of blessing, whimsy, and laughter, including breaking my toilet, delighting in three books coming out, working in discernment and love with students at Goddard College and in workshops, and witnessing great unfoldings of beauty — in the skies, in the faces of people I meet, in the eyes of cats, dogs, and humans. I’ve traveled through Kansas and to Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Michigan (for the first time), Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, and three times to the Twin Cities and back. I’ve gotten too many colds and have eaten too few dark, leafy greens. I dragged a cedar tree into the house and strung it up with lights, capping it with a decorative squirrel. I’ve cleaned the house about 41 times, and even scrubbed the laundry room once. I’ve made and consumed a lot of enchiladas, and taken many naps with cats on my chest. I’ve read some great books, including many of the novels of Ann Patchett and Amy Bloom, and also surely gotten enough sleep, one way or another. I swam many laps, walked many miles, sat many hours on my ass, and pushed/relaxed myself into deeper downward dogs. I’ve also watched a whole lof to movies, aiming for inspiration, laughs (even when wedded to stupidity), and charm.

There’s no way for me to encapsulate any year, particularly this one, which often defied any single word, sentence or paragraph. So often, I’ve felt like I was climbing a roller coaster, and then holding my stomach for dear life as we plummeted down at high speed. What echoes and winds through all of it? Music, even if mostly of the wind. Attention, even and especially at the moments so hard there’s nothing left to do but focus on the immediate. Tenderness, which I keep finding trumps all else when the chips are the down, the storm is upon us, and the pain makes us want to jump out of our skin.

I come back to how the way we treat each other — no matter what is happening and particularly when it’s painful, confusing, and scary — is what matters most. We pay attention, which means listening enough to hear the music of the moment. Then we open our arms, even to whatever a year has been, and with hope, to the next year’s story.

Making Peace with Christmas: Everyday Magic, Day 832

640Christmas has been like the Dread Pirate Roberts for much of my life. Just like The Princess Bride character, it took no prisoners, was illusive but widely feared, and mysteriously changed over time.

Growing up Jewish, I remember cleaning my closet on Christmas, passing the day feeling left out of the party, and of course, going out for Chinese food although we tended to go out for Chinese at the drop of a hat. In my teenage years, when my father married into a Catholic family, Christmas morphed into a combination of agony, boredom, and disappointment, punctuated with lasagna and turkey. With a step-mother who made wielded the weapon of gift inequality (one year, one of my step-sibs got a car, albeit a used car, while I got a blow dryer), my insecurity gained more weight than I did from all the holiday cookies.

When I moved out of the house, I dragged Christmas-as-enemy with me, alternating between being the awkward guest in someone else’s show to trying to ignore the deafening roar of all things Christmas all around. I spent many years cursing Christmas music although, like many people, I have my favorites, and I find much of the music sweet and beautiful (not like the dirges of my people, although, given our history, we have our reasons). I rolled my eyes at tinsel, and got easily pissed off when store clerks told me to have a Merry Christmas. I could recite a well-rehearsed diatribe about how this country was founded on the basis of freedom of religion, and people need to remember that not everyone is Christian.

Yet I’ve also been ferried through some lovely Christmas moments: Midnight mass with my Catholic step-family; playing cards with the children of two beloved professors at the University of Missouri, both of whom insisted I needed to spend Christmas with a family; candlelight church services with the Methodist family I married into, holding up my candle and trying not cry when we sang “Silent Night”; singing alternative lyrics to Christmas Carols with friends (“When shepherds washed their socks at night,” which includes the prayer for the lord to make them static-free). I’ve poured out of buses to carol unsuspecting patients in the hospital, wore red ornament earrings a friend gave me, and even sewed my own stocking, zigzag-stitching my name on it.

Time changes us in ways we can’t always imagine. I find myself now actually tuning into a radio station that plays Christmas music (although I switch stations away from it just as often). I helped Ken drag a cedar tree from the field, then bedecked it with Forest, hanging the ornaments my sister-in-law has been giving each of our children for years. I strung lights through bows of cedar on top of the cabinets. But the biggest change is that I’m no longer hanging on for dear life until the relief of Dec. 26.

I’m not sure how I got here, but I suspect it has to do with having friends of many faiths — a variety pack of Buddhists, Hindus, Hare Krishnas, Wiccans, Jews of many stripes, Muslims, and Christians from Episcopalians to Lebanese Orthodox to Evangelicals. There’s also that perspective we gain over time about what matters, and the pettiness of my old Christmas grudge in a life buoyed by a bevy of blessings: a home, meaningful work, loving friends and family. Given how so many suffer at the hands of war, Ebola, displacement, poverty, homelessness, and racism, why gripe about yet another rendition of “Jingle Bells”?

The Dread Pirate Roberts turned out not to be necessarily evil, but just a guy. Christmas is both just a day and a space for great potential to connect with family, friends, light, and mashed potatoes. When people wish me a Merry Christmas, I’m now answering, “You too,” and taking in all the wishes for merry I can get.

The Things of a Life: Everyday Magic, Day 831

One of the photos his daughters found
One of the photos his daughters found

The shortest day of the year included taking apart, packing, hauling away and other redistributing the things that compose a life, in this case, the life of our friend Jerry. Yesterday, a bunch of Jerry’s friends, his daughters and their husbands all squeezed ourselves into his tiny apartment to point at, ask about, and then shift or lift lots of boxes, furniture, small appliances, photography supplies, shoes, books, clothing and more.

There’s something very tender, surprising, and even familiar about going through the things of someone’s whole life. I spent a long time in the bathroom, packing up bandages, thermometers, unused aspirin and matches (to take to live at my house); sheets, cleaning products, and spray adhesive (to donate); and occasionally special tokens (a ring that was perhaps Jerry’s wedding ring for his last marriage, to give to his daughters). What the family wants time to consider goes to a storage unit. All else either went home with one or another of us, to the Social Service League or recycling (did that man never throw away a box?), or to the trash.

What this looked like was people carrying out shelves and office chairs, bags and boxes, piles of well-read or never-read magazines, all of us dancing past each other in the apartment or backing up in the hallway. In Jerry’s kitchen, I found myself a pot and pan, and drank a bottle of water from his refrigerator, thinking about how it might feel to bring his stuff home to my kitchen, where I cooked up lots of meals for him over the years. I also found, a day after my blender died, a new blender, likely hardly used, among Jerry’s stuff. Carrying it and a scratchy pink wool blanket to my car, I imagined Jerry among us, divvying up his stuff. “You want this?” I might ask, holding up three wooden plates. He would shrug, gesture for me to take them, and tell me that he’s not going to need it anymore, which is practical but also very sad.

Besides discovering that Jerry’s propensity for buying high quality stuff and avoiding junk applied to most of his possessions (and not just his work clothes and cameras), I happened upon many notes he wrote himself. In the middle of the biggest piles of neatly-organized clutter (including saving much of his mail for a long time), his daughter held up a note about the value of decluttering. On the back of a pharmacy receipt, he wrote about seeing a flock of geese. Two calendars I took him so I could use them for collage were actually filled with his writing, listing all his plans, crossing out what he didn’t end up doing, and writing notes in the margins. He wrote on the bottom on one page, “I am going to live to age 98,” which he obviously missed by 35 years. I had no idea that he was dealing with so many health issues, often listed in the daily squares of the calendar, or that he recorded his daily weight, probably trying to encourage his slight body to put on more pounds.

Within a little over an hour, thanks to the work of over a dozen people with assorted vehicles – from compact cars with roomy hatchbacks to trailers – everything was carried out but what will move to the storage unit. It felt strange to be done so quickly when his place had previously been stuffed with so many objects holding within so many stories: all the unused framing supplies for his photographs, books on computer programs and the wisdom of the Native American grandmothers group he followed, photo albums from when his kids were young and guides to the rivers of Kansas, dress shoes hardly worn and hiking shoes well-loved. I realize he’s not there anymore, and that he doesn’t live in his things, but his things do convey the layers of his life.

Wherever he is, I know he’s traveling light and free. I wish him great joy, love, and homecoming as I sit here with one of his hair ties holding my wet hair off my neck. Soon I’ll do some cooking for our Hanukkah party, using some of his things in lieu of having him show up, as he’s done for many years, always late but smiling, ready to hug me in my kitchen in the middle of the the press of friends and friendship.

A Little More Light, Please, Oh, Hanukkah: Everyday Magic, Day 830

The nights get longer, snowIMG_2159 is on the wing, and the days have been overwhelmingly pewter-colored in monotone clouds. Sometimes you just need a little more light, and this year, I’m craving any shard or streak of brightness. In the last week, I lost Jerry, an dear friend (see previous post for more on that), and my mother-in-law remains in a cardiac ICU as our extended family wraps around her, working and praying for a good outcome. Add to this the usual end-of-semester and pre-holidays-rushing-in pressures, and I’m not ready for prime time.

I seem to have gotten through the day of constant crying, followed by the day of crazy anger, all punctuated by intense bouts of forgetfulness or exhaustion. Lucky for me, I recognize from past losses that this is what grief looks IMG_2156like, lots of unpredictability bathed in a warm bath of sadness with big handfuls of crazy thrown in. I almost want to put a sign on me that says, “Approach with care, bearing tempura or cookies.”

Which brings me to Hanukkah, and not just because of the fried food and sweets. This is the holiday of ushering back in the light, a little at first, and then more as we add a candle each night. Usually this holiday is all I need to balance back my winter mojo, but this December, I’m taking no prisoners, so we dug out the Christmas ornaments (including Hanukkah ones), cut a tree from the field, dragged it in, topped it with a squirrel, and strung seven strands of lights around it. As a special memorial to Jerry, I also covered the tops of the cabinets with cedar and more lights.

IMG_2158Beyond these strung lights, there’s the big light we live in and around, and very soon, it flips, lengthening the days and truncating the nights. It’s all fire, one way or another, forging our spirits and lifting our days. My world is Hanukkah-ing itself, and all I need do is hang on, plug in lights and strike matches for the menorah. And remember that we’re all lighting our path in one way or another.

Bonus video: Peter, Paul and Mary singing the passionate Hanukkah song, “Don’t Let the Light Go Out.”

Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 829

10858376_10152644835063208_4719828656362117011_nWe were unlikely friends. He talked slow, walked slow, thought slow and deep. I tend to run fast. I can’t even say when I met him, although I know it was through the Kansas Area Watershed Council, our local and long-lived bioregional community, and sometime, somehow, we became great pals. By 2001, we were doing the lion’s share of the work to organize the Continental Bioregional Congress on the Prairie — Jerry in charge of bookkeeping, travel arrangements and registrations, and me in charge of the program, publicity, and the overall coordination. For the next two years, we spoke on the phone or emailed often 4-5 times each day, just about finishing each other’s thoughts about how to handle any issue that arose.

10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_nHe went from Jerry Sipe to Jerry to Jer, aka #7 (his and my favorite number) on my speed dial. He was around us often, and quickly became the only adult my three children — through teenage years and beyond — always hugged. I hugged him a lot too, both of us close to the same height, as I felt his heart beat in mine.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, I discovered what many already know about wandering through the world of serious illness: some people fall away, and some people run toward you, ready to help in any way possible. Jerry just about moved in with us, joining us so often for dinner that when I fetched groceries, I aimed for his favorites along with our own. He was quiet, patient, and utterly present. The night before my final surgery, he called to find out what time I was going to the hospital. “But don’t you have to work?” I asked, knowing he had taken off a lot of time already for my previous surgeries. “Work? There’s no way I can go to work tomorrow,” he answered, and sure enough, he was there with other close friends and family, praying, singing, chanting and lifting me through surgery and its aftermath.

From there, he built our front porch with Ken. The project that was supposed to take a few months took over two and a half years, and although it was slow-going, the craftmanship is superb as was his installation of our pellet stove, which kept him hanging out at our place for months. There are signs of Jerry everywhere, not the least of which are the photos he gave us over the years,IMG_2135 each visionary and perfect in what he shows us of wind, spider webs, the moon and sky.

Jerry seemed quiet from a distance, but up close, he could be a regular chatterbox, although not in the conventional way. When he started to tell a story, like the time he went AWOL in the early 1970s because he no longer believed in the Vietnam War, it was advisable to get comfortable because he had a lot to say. When it was his turn in the circle — at KAW Council or other bioregional gatherings — he often had a lot to say about what the earth and sky were saying to him. It was obvious he had long conversations with the natural world. He often told me of fields, including the field just south of our house, that he was friends with, and how, in the presence of such places, he entered into deep communion.

10858388_10152644834493208_8539725373344188220_nEach morning, at least for many, many years, Jer would step outside, lift his arms overhead, close his eyes, open his heart and then his arms out wide, asking the living earth to tell him what its will was for him today. “Thy will be done,” he answered the call.

For many years, I counted him as one of my besties, yet in the last three or so years, we were at a bit of a distance. To be honest, I was pissed at him for not getting all possible medical and other healing help for what sure seemed like major memory issues to me. I wanted him to put up a good fight, reach out for support, and be relentless in his own healing. Like others close to him, I was also worried about him living alone and how, in time, he might be found close to death in his apartment. I didn’t understand that he, being himself and not me, was making his own choices and/or that his health issues may well have precluded him from choosing differently. A man close to the earth, he basically, as one dear one of his remarked to me recently, went to the woods to die. He was found last Sunday in his apartment, profoundly dehydrated, having lost close to a third of his body weight, and suffering from double pneumonia and other issues.

This last week, any distance dissolved. I’m eternally grateful to Jerry for this gift of forgiveness, intimacy and friendship. He held tight to my hand while, in his hospital room, I sang prayers and chants, off key and scratchy-throated, to him. One night, I sat close to him for a few hours, sharing song after song from my phone. When I got to James Taylor, particularly “Blossom” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” — music I knew he loved — he opened his eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and looked for moment, even while on a ventilator and in ravaged body, peaceful. He also looked into my eyes as well as into the eyes of many of us who visited with a kind of intensity I’ve only seen in the eyes of my son Daniel right after his birth and in the eyes of my father a few months before his death.

I remember telling Jerry about that moment with my father, and how my father asked if I recognized him. “Yeah, you could have said, I finally recognize you,” Jerry told me. With Jerry, it wasn’t an issue of “finally” recognizing him or being recognized by him. Jerry was born to see, evident in his photos of the prairie as well as his friendships and family connections.

10347556_10152644834623208_7289269370764009355_nHe was also born to make it rain. He once told me that according to a native person he knew, each of us had to make it rain at some point in our lives — we had to save lives and land in some small way. Jerry said that shortly after learning this, he was marching with others to save the Haskell Wetlands when a car sped through the intersection toward the marchers. Jerry saw that the car was about to strike a woman and her baby, riding in a  stroller. He left his slow ways behind and raced into action, positioning himself right in front of the car to save the mother and child. Then he stared into the eyes of the driver, who hit his brakes in time. “I made it rain,” Jerry told me.

Tonight, a little over a day after he died, he may be making it rain again, in the hearts of many of us who love him and also all around us as a very unusual December thunderstorm moseys on in, slowly. It hurts so much that he’s gone, but I’m so grateful for this rain, feeding the parched earth and and reminding me that love heals, always.