When Hate Strikes Close to Home: Everyday Magic, Day 798

When I left Sunday morning to give a presentation on my Holocaust book Needle in the Bone at a Topeka synagogue, hate crimes against Jews seemed as far away as the Jewish ghettos of Poland over 70 years ago. Despite the hate crimes committed in this country and around the world daily against my people and many other peoples, I felt relatively insulated from such dangers. Like many of us, I keep my cheer in check through short stints of thinking about horrendous things happening, punctuated by prayers and wishes for the victims, before returning to life as I live it.

Hearing the news of the shootings at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park, the real and present danger of such hate crimes hit home. Like many in this region, I know my way to the JCC and have presented workshops and talks there over the years. Even more so, some dear friends work there, and bring their children there for events and programs (our rabbi’s daughters were in the building at the time). Any violence against one center of Jewish life immediately reminds us of our vulnerability at all other such centers, including my own synagogue in Lawrence, and the synagogue in Topeka where I just talked about the Holocaust as well as Jewish centers across the country.

No doubt that there will be increased security at all these places, adding onto the regular presence of security guards for holidays and special events, and protocols for what to do when under attack. Of course we’ll also redouble our prayers for peace and work for justice, hold vigils and hold each other, embrace interfaith dialogues, further educate ourselves about terrorist groups and risks, and say or sing a special prayer tonight at Passover. We’ll also feel what we feel: sadness, heartbreak, despair, hopelessness, grief, numbness, and anger.

As I clean my house for the seder tonight, chop parsley for us to dip in salt water to remember our tears, and set the long rented tables in our living room, I’ll also be feeling my way through that question that haunts any talk I give on the Holocaust: how could this happen? Over the last two weeks, I’ve given seven out of eight scheduled talks for April on Needle in the Bone, each one bringing people together to grapple with where evil can lead, and what it means to begin again. The one talk remaining happens next week in Overland Park, close to where three people died senselessly because of hate. May we all grow our minds, hearts and spirits in courage and love.


Death Tour 2014: Everyday Magic, Day 797

Portrait of the artist recovering with her cat

Portrait of the artist recovering with her cat

Within one week, I attended my uncle’s moving funeral in New Jersey, our dear community friend Maggie’s beautiful memorial service in Lawrence, and gave four Holocaust book presentations in the Kansas towns of Newton, Hutchinson, Hillsboro and McPherson. I’m beyond weary, but also inspired by the love that edged everywhere I went and most everyone I met.

The funeral for my very funny and lively uncle took place on a brilliantly blue day, where we gathered at the grave site for a short ceremony. The rabbi told about my uncle’s spirit, and his unwavering love for my aunt as the wind lightly blew and the sun brightly shone. We took turns dropping three or more shovel-fulls of dirt on the simple wooden coffin, and then the Bloom men (nephews, son, cousins, brother) continued until the grave was filled. While my trip did entail long days of flying each way, and a whole lot of driving through New Jersey, it was full of appreciation for family, great meals at diners, and laughing hysterically and mom while rolling down various highways.

The service for our friend Maggie today was sparkling with soul. Beautiful music, especially a bass solo played by one of Maggie’s nephews, and heart-opening remembrances her her brother, son and husband all culminated in the 500 or so people there standing up to sing “This Little Light of Mine” together. This is the same song a bunch of sang at her window about a month ago on a snowing March day as we sheltered our candles from the wind and leaned into each other for warmth. There’s a lot to say about the injustice of such an alive person dying from cancer at the age of only 49, but there’s even more to say about her legacy of love.

In between the funerals, I traveled with my friend Liz to a bunch of south-central communities to give presentations on my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other. Four talks in three days meant I occasionally forgot what I told each audience, and what was left to tell. Nevertheless, the audiences surpassed expectations and numbers everywhere, especially in the small town of Hillsboro, where over 100 people came out to learn more about the Holocaust and the Polish resistance. When I showed photos of Lou’s extended family, all of whom were killed in the Holocaust, I was reminded of how, in some small way, of how right it is to remember and acknowledge these people and their lives.

Now that the week is over, I sit on the porch with Shay the dog, the wind blows fiercely, and we await whatever comes next, which might likely be another nap, with a grateful heart.

Maggie, the Heartbeat of What It Means to Be Alive: Everyday Magic, Day 796

377188_10151101601723305_530730228_nMonday night, a brilliant star left our orbit. Anyone who knows Maggie Murphy Backus knows I’m not exaggerating. For weeks and even months beforehand, and surely for weeks and months afterwards, she’s on our minds and in our hearts.

Although I didn’t know Maggie for decades or pal around big-time for her, whenever I saw her, we got right down to it: cancer (first mine, and later hers), mortality, kids, the essence of life, love, and the courage to keep going. My last conversation with her was in the Merc where we talked in depth among the myriad shampoos and essential oils about what was happening with her treatment, and how she felt pretty sick from it much of the time but was committed to do all she could to make it to her son’s graduation, and if that, then set another goal to live her way toward and beyond.

For close to seven years, this is how she navigated late-stage ovarian cancer with astonishing grace, humor, clear-eyed seeing, and bone-deep strength. “If I die, I die,” she said, and we talked about how she felt both wildly sad and overwhelmingly grateful for the difficult now, no matter its length.

In November, I wrote Maggie this poem, which I shared with her (and all her friends) on Facebook, taking the title from her blog post last November.  As I sit in bed this morning in my nightgown, blankets gathered around, wild turkeys flirting with each other in my backyard where the pink hyacinth blooms, I realize how Maggie herself embodied that heartbeat of being alive. I’m also wildly sad and overwhelmingly grateful for her presence, which will continue despite her absence, in our lives. Travel in peace, Maggie. Thanks for all the love you left, and may you always know, in whatever form you are and become, all the love you are.

That Stupid Cancer Thing Again

It comes down to time: a stretch ahead long enough
for the next, then the next. In between what’s common
and precious: shining like dark branches against
the red sky turning gold at November dusk.
Changing all the time, yet how to break through
time’s constraints. How far can love take us?
All the way, you already know. How long? The key
in the lock, the door already open, to living this life
while it’s filling your hands, your heart, your home
by lamplight or candlelight or simply by one glance
into those who love you best without needing to know
the distance ahead. An open palm on your back as
the chickadee pours herself on the branch in wind and sun.
There’s now, its songs hard and tender. There’s easy breathing,
driving you east to Thanksgiving then back home.
See it all as you have these six years of trial and chemo,
wait and test, love and love more. Feel it all: your husband
in your arms, your son in your heart, your daughter’s eyes
in your eyes, all of us who know you around the beautiful
fire of your life tonight and the next night. Luminous,
sweet and raw: the heartbeat of what it means to be alive.

When Things Fall Apart: Everyday Magic, Day 795

One of my favorite books, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, names this week. Two of our three young adult children lost their jobs, my uncle died after a difficult (but thankfully short) hard ending, another friend is close to leaving us, and yet another is in the hospital in critical condition. Several nights of thunderstorms translated into my very big dog trying to climb on my head while the cats danced and pounced across our blankets. Yet the universe has added some comic relief: yesterday, Shay the dog strategically unzipped my purse and proceeded to eat a large bag of cough drops, making his breath methol-fresh.

In between buying a plane ticket after several hours of scouring the Internet (beginning at 5:38 a.m.), packing, and finishing getting a book of poetry ready for publication, I turn to Pema Chodron’s writings, and find this:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy…..To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.

As I sit in my living room, watching the haze of the softly-lit clouds blow through the tops of the cedars, I breathe slowly, trying to appreciate life out of the nest, the place where I can no longer pretend life isn’t so unpredictable or dangerous. I open my heart to the sadness I feel about my uncle, a man who often made us laugh very hard and was the first person I knew who adored sushi. I replay the refrain Kim Stafford told me about being a parent,”Difficult to watch, impossible to fix.” I listen to the dog, snoring beside me on the couch as he catches up on sleep after so many restless nights.

Some weeks things fall apart. Plans drastically change on a dime. Life lessons, as my mother reminded me yesterday, come at us, no matter our age or circumstance. “Let me remember to let there be room enough for healing,” I tell myself just as a large crow landed on the top of the cedar, balanced on the swaying branches.

Finishing the Last Poem for Chasing Weather: Everyday Magic, Day 794

20110620_5447Yesterday, I finished the last poem, the one I couldn’t conjure for weeks, and not for lack of trying. Part of the 70 poems in Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image, the book I’m doing with splendid weather chaser and photographer Stephen Locke, “Rain,” capped about three or four years of writing weather poems (after many decades of writing weather poems because weather is the fascinating soundtrack to our lives).

As a poet, I’m not used to writing a body of poems on deadline although there have been plenty of times I’m pushing and praying through a poem for a special occasion. Because poetry is so hard to get published, usually, I have years (decades even) to linger over a book, but for this one, that goes to the publisher, Ice Cube Press, within a week, I had to throw myself into the mercy of the page. Sometimes the right line, image or rhythm would come, and often, it wouldn’t. I tended to play with the not-quite-right poems by trying them out with very short, then very long lines, each time, tweaking the language, and hoping some fresh new image landed in my lap. And that’s kind of the essence of poetry: you show up on the page, surrender all, work like crazy, pay attention while not paying attention, and hope the gods give you something to say.

Such was the case with this poem, which went through many versions, and which I began again to write a dozen times. Part of the challenge was what to say about storms and life that I hadn’t said in any of the other 69 poems. Now that I found something that feels good to me, I let it go, carry the manuscript to a wonderful writer who will proofread the poems for me, and then send it to my publisher. While I’m done chasing poetry (for a short while), we’re not done chasing dollars to fund the high quality printing of this book, so if the work connects with you, and you’d like to buy your copy in advance, and support a small press, please see our indiegogo campaign here. Meanwhile, in honor of being finished, and of this blustery, rainy day, here is “Rain.”


The wall of noise dissolves to rain,

a world held in place by a million falling threads.

In the balance, the fur on the coyote’s belly,

worn as leather but marked with a lifetime of fights,

and the lake hungry for new stories to swim with the old.

Lightning angles and wishbones, branches into branches

that mimic what grows or tunnels below.

Scenery unrolls quick-silver — expanses of land

or water, sky and darkness — in the flash that lights up

all the lines of roads and clouds, cedars and shorelines,

before sealing all back together in shifting hues of night.

What seems like the end, again a beginning.

What can’t be said, suddenly pouring down everywhere.

Two Bodies Always in Motion: A Crowd-Sourced Poem of Sorts: Everyday Magic, Day 793

201110240307 copyIn finishing the poems for Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempest, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image, the book I’m writing with Stephen Locke, I simply couldn’t get started on writing a poem to fit this magnificent photo. After many months of trying, I asked my Facebook friends to give me words to get going, and did they! I used all I could (got in coruscating, a new word to me), and am sorry I couldn’t make words like bicuspid work. Here’s the latest version of the poem, and if you want to get your copy of the book (and support our campaign to rush funds for the high quality color printing of so many amazing photos), please see the Indiegogo campaign we’re doing here.  Thank you to everyone who so generously helped me find the words for this poem.

Two Bodies Always in Motion

A coruscating kaleidescope of fire, grief,

possibility, and beauty about to be ghosted

in the velvet memory of stars and eyes.


One body bends its light toward land,

the other mirrors its mirage into tall sky.

Yellow-bellied heavens ring jewel tones

of flicker, low notes of boom.


Skirts of electrical impulse rustle

stage curtains across the Great Plains.

What we call a sunbow, neon way of knowing,

thumbprint of the sun, lost ship of florescence

tipping its arctic ridges south

before vanishing north for another decade.


The light never leaves us, only wavers.

No one ever lost completely except

in one slot of time, one way of loving.

Always two bodies: our own, and the world’s.

God Has a Little Talk With Fred Phelps: Everyday Magic, Day 792

Fred: You’re God?

God: You were expecting some white man with a beard. Puleeeaze!

Fred: But you’re Black, and you look like Barbra Streisand.

God: That’s because I’m Haitian. And I love being Barbra on my good days. You know what she sings about people who need people.

Fred: Say, are you a fella or a gal?

God: Fred, Fred, Fred, didn’t you ever stop to consider that God was a drag queen? How else could we create man and woman in our image?

Fred: But all my life, I…..

God: Don’t want to hear it, Fred. I know what you did all your life, and it hurts my head, my heart too.

Fred: Are you this way because of all the fags?

God: (Turning away from Fred for a moment) Emily, would you bring me the extra strength aspirin right away? (Turns back to Fred) That’s Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites. Love hanging with that girl. She’s a hoot. Now Fred, I’m so sick of hearing you say that F-word that as of this moment, every time you say it, what will come out of your mouth is “the lights fandango.”

Fred: But the lights fandango have ruined everything, even hell, which is where I must be by mistake.

God: No heaven, no hell, my misguided non-friend, but just what you make of it – just like the old saying which, by the way, I came up with. Now enough of you saying anything. It’s time for you to hear me out. You have been bad, Fred, very, very bad. Lucky for you, I have a way of dealing with the likes of evil ones. You’re going to Life Rehab.

Fred: But I don’t do drugs.

God: Life Rehab, Fred. You’ll have many decades, maybe centuries, to work out what made you such Fercockt.

Fred: What?

God: Fercockt. Yiddish for “fucked up.”

Fred (looking horrified): You’re not Jewish, are you God?

God: Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, you name it. I’m even atheist. I know, no one can believe in themselves all the time.

Fred: How is that….

God: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” That’s Walt Whitman, someone else I put together. Love when the poets get it right! Back to what I’m saying…

Fred: Whitman? Isn’t he a lights fandango?And what the heck do I do in Life Rehab?

God: A little of this, a little of that. No golf — Genghis Khan ruined that for everyone, but lots of self-reflection activities. Some collaging, a lot of writing, long walks on the beach, a lot of juicing, a bit of hard love counseling, big time energy healing, and if you’re really making progress, maybe a massage, and of course, group therapy sessions with the guys….

Fred: The guys?

God: Fred, you don’t think you’re the worse badass I’ve seen? You’re not even in the league of A-List evil. We have some long-time rehab residents. Stalin has been a bear. And Hitler….don’t even get me started on that one. I refuse to send him back even as a slug until he makes a lot more progress. I don’t know if Leona Hemsley and her dog will ever leave even although she complains about the thread count of the sheets constantly.

Fred: How long are people there?

God: That depends on you, Fred. We’ve had some make remarkable progress. Mussolini was able to turn it around in about 23 years. Richard Nixon knocked our socks off at how fast he progressed, but then again, once he came out, all his unpleasantness melted away. Some will be there for hundreds of years. You’ll love the activities. We have the best crafts counselors there. No fluorescent posters for you, though. You don’t get to touch hot pink for at least 20 years.

Fred: Sounds like a lot of damn basket weaving.

God: Don’t knock basket weaving, Fred. Charles Manson is exquisite at it. Now if you’ll excuse me (turning to Emily Dickinson to take the pills she brought him). What is this green stuff, Emily?

Emily Dickinson: A shot of wheat grass. Good for you, like a certain slant of light.

God (laughing): Good one, Emily. Hey, start early and take your dog. (Looks back at Fred) Guess you don’t know her poetry, do you, Fred? No prob. We have lots of poetry in Life Rehab. You’ll be memorizing a poem a day, starting with the work of Paul Monette, one of my favorite of the lights Fandango. Oh, and one more thing, Fred, you’re not in Kansas anymore. A little gift for the sunflower state this first day of spring. Now as most people who knew of you would say, be gone with you. Emily and I are going to Kansas to get some barbecue.