Category Archives: Friends

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.

Carry On, My Wayward Son (and Daughter): Everyday Magic, Day 828

Kansas was singing “Carry On, My Wayward Son” with all their heart on my car radio as I stood outside the car, having accidentally locked myself out of a vehicle that makes locking oneself out just about impossible. It was dark, misting rain with an edge of ice, and my cell phone and AAA card were in that car, smiling up at me from my warm, happy purse. Given the kind of week I’ve been having, this moment barely rated although it was wickedly inconvenient, made even more so when, inside the nearby grocery store, I couldn’t reach my husband, the only person with another key to my rock-and-roll singing car.

“Whatever,” told myself as I went back out with a coat hanger, only to find the car impossible to penetrate. I turned to go back to the store when a chirpy clerk rushed out to me. My husband called back the number calling him, and he was on his way. So I returned to the dark, hands in pockets, and rocked on my feet.

In the last week, I’ve driven through what feels like charcoal tunnels of night to arrive at one ICU or another to be with people I love who’ve been hugging the edge of close calls. My mother-in-law is doing much better after giving us quite a scare, and I look forward to seeing her soon. My dear friend Jerry has been on a ventilator, fighting many health issues, and may be doing better. That’s the thing about being in critical condition, one doctor told us: it’s a roller coaster ride, and you don’t know where and how it ends.

Meanwhile, there is voice and touch, waiting and sitting, pulling back the give-me-a-clear-answer thoughts to dwell in the open air. “Anything can happen,” I told one of Jerry’s sisters this morning. “That’s what makes life so interesting,” she said.

Life has been very interesting, including the moments of utter tender beauty and connection, like when, alone with Jerry for a few hours recently one night, I played him song after song from my phone. He opened his eyes wide for James Taylor singing “Blossom,” a version he recorded live with Carole King. “The crowd goes wild,” I told Jerry at the beginning of the son. Jerry lifted on eyebrow, and when Taylor started singing, it seemed like Jerry, for the first time in many days, actually was happy. “That’s the real medicine,” the nurse said as she came into the room.

Friends and family — including the ones in hospital rooms — are carrying on, and I more cognizant than usual of how we are all wayward sons and daughters, not sure where we are some or much of the time, but, to quote a dear friend recently, all walking each other home, no matter what home is.

To All the Young Adults I Love: Everyday Magic, Day 806

IMG_0833Now that all three of our children are young adults, I realize how difficult it is to be moseying around on not-completely-fully-formed adult legs.

To refresh my memory about my own young adultness, I reread some journals lately, and was horrified at what I found. At age 22, for example, I was throwing myself at a guy who routinely left in the middle of a date at a restaurant, bar or party to “run a little errand,” only to return three hours later. I thought he was just unorganized. Turns out he was actually seeing another woman, something I didn’t discover for months as I berated myself for not getting him to love me. Ah, those woes of chase-your-own-tail love affairs gone wrong, but add to that the crazy tizzy of finding a decent job (What? All the funding is cut again? Well, off I go….), and place to live (I moved seven times in the two years when I lived in Kansas City which, in retrospect, was a good way to learn about the city and various bus routes).

As I chat with my kids — one still living here, one back in the nest after college and some jobs away, and one propelled 485 miles north of here — I realized that they, like their friends, are navigating a 2o-ish world far more complex and screwed up than the complex and screwed-up world I badly navigated. While that makes me somewhat blind to what it means to become an adult in a reality of Instagram, sexting (kids, if you’re doing that, please don’t ever tell me), and all kinds of virtual careers, friendships and meetings, I wanted to offer this humble list of what I would tell myself at that age:

  • What you fear so much in your 20s usually doesn’t amount to hill of lentils. Afraid no one will ever love you deeply? You just haven’t met the right one yet. Scared you’ll never find the right job or best cobbled-together collage of work for yourself? Hang tight — you’re just getting started. Fear that you’ll never feel grown up? Welcome to my world, and enjoy the ride!
  • Stability is over-rated, but it’s good to feather your nest to make for softer landings. There’s no “there” there. Seriously. As a writer, I have learned all-too-well that there’s no destination, only unfurling territory, like a three-dimensional map that envelops you. At the same time, it truly is a good idea to have some extra untouched money in the bank for the unexpected doctor visit, the work that suddenly falls through, and even (although hopefully not) bail money. Likewise, it’s good to have a place that feels somewhat beautiful, refreshing and orderly — whatever that means to you. Speaking of which….
  • Make your bed. Now. Every morning. Five years ago, Anne told me about a guru who told her, “Clean bed, clear head,” and it got me to make my bed every morning. I would shout this advice from mountain-tops to my 20-something self because at those moments that you’re hanging on by a thread, it truly makes a difference to walk into your bedroom and see a lovely place to collapse and sob…..or just sleep your way to the next morning. You can tell yourself, “Life may be falling apart, but I’ve got a beautiful bed.”
  • We get more sensitive and vulnerable as we get older. Ironic, isn’t it? I used to be sure it was the opposite, but the older I get, the more I burn through illusions of vulnerability (“I will just die if Mr. X stands me up again”) and hit on the real thing. We humans are delicate as hell, and the more we strengthen our hearts, the more we soften our hearts too. Which means that the older you get, the more deeply you can feel what’s real. In other words….
  • Ask for Help, but Give Up the Trauma-Drama. Life is dramatic enough. Take tonight, for instance: towering pink and orange clouds soaring upward. Big wind. And now, cats stretched all over the hardwood floor with great pizzazz. Yes, there will be pain and suffering, but escalating it and giving it center stage booking will only enlarge the pain and suffering and obscure your resilience. You’re stronger than you think, you can ask for help when you need it, and you can trust yourself, or at least, act like you do enough to let yourself feel what you truly feel without pyrotechnics.
  • Exercise. All three of my kids do this regularly with yoga, weight-lifting, running and more. I, on the other hand, lounged on couches, obsessing with friends for hours as we enmeshed all our problems into one big heap of intensity. If I could do it all again, I would have started doing then what I love so much now: move this body. Swim. Walk. Dance. Run. Stretch. Walk some more. Nothing helps us see the drama-queen nature of our moods as much as having to sweat and strain and breathe our ways into the physical world.
  • Trust that life will give you all you need. Especially whatever you need to learn. What you yearn for most is already happening within and around you. What qualities you want to foster most in yourself are already blossoming before your very eyes. Or as they say in “Almost Famous,” a movie that is like a biblical fount of life wisdom in our family, “It’s all happening!”

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.

Adventures of Lenny the Squirrel Menorah: Everyday Magic, Day 749

DSCN2240
Lenny deciding which part of the cake he wants (he prefers to eat the part with the candles)

We have a new friend in Lenny the squirrel menorah. Born out of need and obsession, he was to symbolize the mash-up holiday of Thanksgivukkah, but as time went on, I’ve found him to be so much: an ambassador of goodwill and whimsy, a calm tender of the fire, a birthday week companion who doesn’t get headaches from drinking too much eggnog, a confidant of the highest order, and a dear friend who I feel like I’ve always known. It’s as if a very unobtrusive but highly desirable guest dropped by and, to the delight of all, moved in for life.

The cat finds him captivating too
The cat finds him captivating too

We found Lenny more than made him. Having first seen a spectacular white squirrel menorah on the internet, I immediately thought, “It shall be mine!” only find out that: 1) It wasn’t an actual menorah, but a collection of white squirrel candle holders, and 2) Said candle holders together would cost more than the value of one of our cars. So it was off to toy stores, antique stores, and many hours on the internet looking for squirrel menorahs (none out there – outrageous!) or nine small squirrel figurines to make a menorah from (I found every other kind of rodent but squirrels).

Lenny between big and little fire
Lenny between big and little fire

Then I saw Lenny sitting on a shelf in the antique mall. I brought him home for a mere $6 and put him on the kitchen table for a month while wondering how to menorah-ize him. Lucky for Lenny, a cleaning spree helped me discover little glass cubes that composed a menorah of themselves but could be rearranged around a cheerful ceramic squirrel. Ken cut a wooden base and found some strong glue, and voila! We had our squirrel menorah.

At first Lenny hung out with the cats and basically just bided his time, resting up for the show, which began on Thanksgiving eve. From there, each night, it was another adventure, with the loudest and biggest one coming, appropriately, on the last night of Hanukkah,

Thanksgiving and no one thought to give Lenny any turkey
Thanksgiving and no one thought to give Lenny any turkey

which happened to coincide with my birthday. Lenny was a champ about it all, traveling with ease, holding whatever candles we gave him, and releasing wax remnants with ease the next morning.

Now that Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are over, and there’s only a small

Lenny hangs out with my birthday loot. He especially likes the maple syrup.
Lenny hangs out with my birthday loot. He especially likes the maple syrup.

baggie of stuffing left in the refrigerator and a few errand Hanukkah candles left, I could assign Lenny a room in the basement with the other menorahs, which seem much more like the inanimate object they are. But Lenny tells me otherwise, maybe with his eyes that truly follow me wherever I go while pretending to look straight ahead (Lenny has superb peripheral vision) and surely with his heart. Besides, I’m curious as to what Lenny’s next adventure might be, and like the troll in the film Amelie, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns up at the Pyramids, Roman ruins or in the refrigerator, all the time reminding me how, with the right squirrel, all things are possible.

The Party’s Over, The Dog Is Back & The Nest Is Emptying: Everyday Magic, Day 748

DSCN2222By 11:52 last night, Daniel was on the long, sonorous train heading southwest, less than six hours before the prodigal dog, once again vanished for a walkabout, returned home. Within a day, Natalie flies north, Forest starts classes again, work encapsulates a lot of our daylight, and the leftovers from so many gatherings ebb to crumbs. It’s the end of one wildly-vast holiday helping and the beginning of the regrouping, just in time for another bout of holidays later this month.

There’s something very satisfying about having done it all, then waking to a quiet, mostly still-clean house with a lovely bowl of local persimmons on the counter left by one guest and some handmade potholders left by another. There’s a sense of plenitude and saturation, all in the aura of fellowship that filled our house, first for Thanksgivukkah, then for the Hanukkah party with parties and festivities elsewhere in between. Mostly, there’s the lovely ease of having nothing to do but drink coffee, eat some oatmeal, and later, take a walk or take in a movie.

P1030903The weather helped with so many days bright and shining, temperatures making it easy to wander in the fields or through town. So did the company: a mash-up of friends from 30 years ago traveling through along with more recent friends, family threading together, new and old pals from different worlds overlapping over heapings of latkes, and finding Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish everywhere we went.

DSCN2236Now is the time to remember conversations about true sabbaticals into the wild, how being a turkey mama is a free pass to being accepted by the animal world, forging forgiveness with people who haven’t a clue, watercolor tattoos, the impending arrival of bluebirds, the wonders of Brussels sprouts, and animal adventures. Speaking of which, the post-adventuring dog snores loudly by my side while the chickadees begin to make the cottonwood branches tremble a bit with their weightless weight. So much to be grateful for, not the least of which is the time to be.

Are You Holding Onto Your Seat? One Wild Day in August: Everyday Magic, Day 728

Some days the ride spins faster, and the bottom drops out only to find yourself caught in the arms of an unsuspecting stranger……or something like that. Today was such as day.

First thing up was a bone density scan, to be followed with a right phone meeting about one of my book projects possibly deflating, a worry that had me on tenter hooks (which literally means a nail with an upward curve to hold wet clothes so it can dry). By the time the scan was done, I was pacing in the food co-op on the phone, finding, to my happy surprise, that the the book project was on relatively solid ground. With great relief, I bought more coffee, put in sugar and creamer this time, and had some breakfast.

After lunch with an old friend, we found — much to our thrilled astonishment — a wedding gown for her at the first place we seriously looked, Calamity Janes in downtown Lawrence or, as many of us call it, the Stevie Nicks clothing store. I happily marched in the heat and humidity to the local library for a phone meeting, only to get a call from the doctor’s office. I had “significant bone thinning.” WTF? I’m built like a pottery mug. How could this be? Hearing from a friend that she had a similar diagnosis, and it wasn’t a major deal relieved me.

Then Ken asked if there was any chance this could be related to my cancer 11 years ago. A little dangerous research on the internet later, plus adding in various other real or imagined symptoms, brought me into quick and wild trepidation. So I started calling doctors, and by the time the nurse of my primary doctor assured me that it was “only” osteoporosis, I let myself exhale. Repeatedly. A longer talk with my oncologist calmed me more (although we will look into it because that’s the way we roll).

Now Ken naps on the bed, Shay naps on the floor, and Sid the cat naps in the bathroom sink. I consider making dinner and wonder what ups and downs might continue to toss me to my chair or lift me off the ground.