Little wonders abound, and in the last week, here are five I experienced:
1. Mothra! On Sunday we found this guy just off the side of our porch, a giant moth (over six inches across) who blended beautifully with the porch siding and ceiling. Sometimes the amazing is in plain sight, life camoflaged in life. Walk softly, and carry a measuring stick.
2. Flower Power: I caught sight of these gorgeous purple coneflowers aka echinacea right outside Plymouth Congregational Church
while strolling around Lawrence with Ken and our friend Stephen Locke. Mostly, we were pausing to listen to the nighthawks dive at dizzying speed while digesting superb Indian food and our lovely time presenting Chasing Weather at the arts center. The flowers grabbed my attention, and how could they not? They were bundling fountains of pink, happy as the day is long, and given that we were just past the summer solstice, the good day was long indeed.
3. My Name in Lights….in a Bathroom: Nothing like some recognition, but what a surprise to find this in the classy bathroom of the Kansas City Sporting (our local soccer team) fancy and friendly conference center. I was there on Friday to give a writing workshop to about 45 advertising professionals taking part in “Gas Can,” the American Advertising Federation Kansas City chapter’s annual conference.
4. A Merchant Ivory Moment: Hanging out with friends, especially handsome ones, and one in a particularly spiffy hat, is a little like being in one of those luscious Room with a View-like films, only with more chiggers. We paused at the end of the woods after trekking around part of the hill to watch the sky, the moon rising just a little to the south of Venus and Jupiter, so close together. Nothing like being outside with friends to talk poetry, the mysteries of life, and tyranny of ticks.
5. Dessert Nirvana: Sometimes when you order
something without understanding what it is, what you get is made of amazement. This dessert, at the end of our Oriental Bistro dinner and Power of Words conference committee meeting, was composed of 80% snowy ice and 20% ecstasy. My friends were as amazed as I was; in turn, I begged them to help me eat it, which
On Saturday, we scattered the ashes of Jerry, called the “cremains,” on the prairie with family and close friends. Gathering mid-day on the Akin Prairie — a place Jerry loved intensely — we followed the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council water ritual that Jerry had participated in dozens of times over dozens of years. This ritual, which ends most of our KAW Council gatherings — whether on the prairie Camp Hammond (between Lawrence and Topeka), where we’ve held weekend gatherings every spring since 1982, or beside Castle Rock in Western Kansas or other places we’ve explored — is a way to honor where we’ve traveled, where we’re going, and most of all, where we are. We stand in a circle, begin with chanting three Kaws (kind of like om but to the tune of Kaw), and then each person, as he or she feels moved, can step into the center and offer up a prayer, song, gesture, poem, memory or wish.
Along with what people say or do, we invite everyone to bring water from their travels to pour into the center, and this time, we had the water from Jerry’s travels. Danny found several bottles with water that Jerry had collected from the Southwest, his home state of Minnesota, and within and beyond Kansas. His daughters brought a box containing baggies of his cremains we could scatter right in the center, out in the prairie, or in other places.
The skies danced panoramic of storms to come, and the prairie was alive with blossom and sharply-green grasses. Jerry’s family, superb at both speaking from the heart and self-organizing, instantly started coming into the center, from the oldest to youngest siblings and their families, then his oldest to youngest daughters and their families. Then friends and other family member stepped into the center. One sister invited us to turn to the person next to us and dance for a moment since she had promised Jerry they would go dancing soon when he took a short-lived turn for the better in the final days in the hospital. One of his daughters asked us to open up our arms to the sky as she had seen her father do countless time. Some people told stories, like how he attached a camera to a kite, bringing together two of his passions, to get some aerial photos. One friend sang out the word that speaks to her most of Jerry: sweet.
At the end, many of us scattered ourselves through the prairie to leave some of his ashes or say our own goodbyes. I didn’t realize how incomplete his leaving was last December until I watched his family and friends fan out across the luscious green and blooming prairie, and earlier, right at the end of the circle, how we all called out, “Jerry on the Prairie!” This is where he is, and he’s also right here with us, alive in the stories we told later at the Unitarian Fellowship for a celebration of his life and spirit, the next day on our porch that he built, and for many days to come.
Jerry loved the wind, and as I write this, back on the porch, I’m surrounded by wind, birdsong, frogs are chirping, and one owl just called out, just like the one owl we heard while in the water ritual circle on Saturday, singing to us despite it being the middle of the day. We’re now in the after of Jerry on the prairie, landed in beauty, loss, sweetness, and something beyond mere knowledge that my friend Kat Green wrote so perfectly about in this poem:
Sometimes knowledge is not enough.
Nor is knowing in your bones.
We make our choices.
We live or die.
We scattered Jerry’s ashes at Aiken Prairie,
The crest of a hill by the Aiken family cemetery
but not in it.
We encircled his large family with unfamiliar ritual,
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.
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.
Now 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!”
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.
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.
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).
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,
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
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.