Category Archives: Spirituality

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.

Why I Buy Myself Flowers Each Week: Everyday Magic, Day 813

photoOnce again, I received a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from one of the ones I love. Each Friday, I go to Dubai Dillons aka Euro Dillons aka Dapper-Not-Dirty-Anymore Dillons on 19th and Mass., and voila! I buy myself the bunch of blossoms that says, in no uncertain terms, “Take me, I’m yours.”

I didn’t always buy myself flowers each Friday, and actually, I’m not even sure when I started, but it was sometime in the last five or so years. I’ve always loved receiving flowers, but like many of us, it wasn’t as if a weekly floral offering was in my horoscope. I remember being in a play in high school, and my father, who was anything but outwardly loving (or inwardly much of the time) knocked my socks off by getting me a bunch of daisies. Many years later, I recall being in a large room where someone was giving a talk when I saw my new boyfriend, who has since become my old husband, walk in with a single black-eye Susan. I fell in love and just kept falling.

But it wasn’t really until my father-in-law that I got in my head that I should have flowers often. Whenever roses were on sale, he would go out and buy a dozen for his wife and a dozen for me. Because he always had a key to where he lived, he would go to my house, and put the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table. No note was necessary. “You left me flowers?” I asked. He just shrugged. “Well, I had to because my no-good son was going to get you some,” he joked. I was elated everyday and also blown completely away, having grown up in a family where my own dad didn’t express (or feel) affection. It also seemed, as he got older, that flowers were on sale all the time.

I do grow some of my own, and some weeks, I don’t need to pony up the $10 or so at Dillons to have a bouquet of Asian lilies or daffodils. But most weeks, I find a way to give myself these weekly messages from heaven. Having a super-sonic sense of smell (both a gift and a curse, depending on what ally I’m walking down), the scent of so many flowers brings me exquisite joy. I’m grateful to be gainfully employed enough to treat myself to these beauties each week.

For years, I beat myself up for not resting on the sabbath, truly taking a day off electronic devices (seems I can’t go for more than half a day without “needing” to check something) and other work and making a proper Shabbat. Now I realize the flowers have been bringing me Shabbat, showing me the divide between the workaday world and world waiting just under the surface, each petal a reminder that life is vastly more beautiful than I can fully comprehend.

Praying for the Peace That Surpasses All Understanding: Everyday Magic, Day 807

On Facebook, at the grocery store, and even in my own kitchen, discussions heat up about the Israeli bombing of Gaza, and the Hamas missiles into Israel. Some friends and family remind me how much Hamas started it, firing the missiles, some homemade and some with longer-than-usual range capacity, sent to the Gaza by Iran. Some friends and family point out how Israel started it long ago or baited Hamas recently, and is now killing civilians — children and adults — in mosques, disability institutions, and homes. So many of those posting or speaking their responses present strong evidence for how Hamas is actually encouraging civilians to shield bombs and other weaponry, or how Israel needs to shut down the attacks for once and for all. There are also reports on how there are no safe places for people living in the Gaza, and no support for a cease-fire.

My heart goes out to those in the Gaza, facing big losses already, and waiting for what Israel’s Haaretz’s news called “the slaughterhouse.” My heart also goes out to all who faced ongoing fear, trauma, and danger, summed up (from Israel’s point of view) in Haaretz here:

During the years of Hamas rule in Gaza, the same sickening cycle of violence has repeated itself endlessly. Rockets are fired into Israel by Hamas or its proxies, Israel’s army responds, a ceasefire is reached, quiet prevails for a limited time, and then Hamas begins the cycle all over again. In the meantime, the world becomes accustomed to a higher level of violence, Israeli civilians in the south continue to be terrorized, and Israeli children continue to be traumatized. And the reach of the rockets continues to expand, to the point where more than a third of Israel’s population is now in range.

I would add to this that often, the fight is more than lopsided, with Palestinians suffering enormous losses, such as right now with over 160 killed.

I believe in the necessity of a secure and sustainable Jewish homeland, something my study of the Holocaust reinforced tenfold. I also believe in the need for a Palestinian homeland, although I’m certainly no expert on the details to make and keep each in peace and respect for all. My beliefs, as well as most of the beliefs I encounter lately, are controversial or obvious, depending on who you’re talking to; at the same time, this is a tender time for anyone with an open heart and/or whose tribe (like mine) is involved in this.

Given that there’s no clear, feasible (at least, according to what we see in many news sources), and long-term answer to such extensive pain, loss and trauma, I don’t have an answer except to listen to each other with respect and as open a mind (and heart) as possible, read widely from diverse sources (from Haaretz to Al Jezeera to the BBC to other sources — at least, that’s what works for me), and to seek, work for, and imagine the peace that passes all understanding.

I’ll also be praying for our daughter, who is flying to Israel tonight on a Birthright trip — an educational, historic and cultural trip for Jewish youth — as she sets foot in the holy land to see for herself some of what life is like in Israel right now. And praying for all the sons and daughters who don’t have the privilege of travel and exploration.

P.S. If you share comments, please do so respectfully. I know this is a charged issue for many of us.

Welcome to the Dialogue and Friendship Dinner: With An Outstretched Hand

Thanks to Eyyup Esen, the force of friendship between this event
Thanks to Eyyup Esen, the force of friendship between this event

Tonight I was honored to give the welcome and a welcoming poem at the annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner sponsored by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest. This interfaith gathering brought over 200 people together for an evening of inspiration in the University of Kansas ballroom. There we shared stories of courage and change, Malika Lyon astounded us with her whirling dervish dancing, Aydin Cayir took our breath away with his stunning calligraphy on the spot, and we celebrated community leadership and social responsibility through awards to Rep. Barbara Ballard, KU Dean Danny Anderson, L.I.N.K. Director Greg Moore, Food Bank director Jeremy Farmer, and County Commissioner Mike Gaughan.

Here are my words:

When I was asked to say a few welcoming words a month ago, I had no idea how

After the whirl: Malika, Clark, Daniel and me
After the whirl: Malika, Clark, Daniel and me

welcoming each other across faiths would resonate with so much more purpose and intensity since the actions of April 13, when three people died as a result of the kind of hatred meant to divide and diminish us. Our coming together tonight is imbued with this story, in which hope, sorrow, grief and faith break our hearts open even more.

About a week ago, many of us came together for a vigil at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, where Rabbi Moti reminded us that the killer, who had studied and plotted extensively on how to find and kill Jews ended up killing Christians. That he couldn’t tell us apart shows how much our fates are entwined — Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Agnostic, Buddhist, Spiritual or however our faith names us or we name our faith. The day of the shooting, I was driving home from Topeka, where I had just presented a talk on the Holocaust and my book Needle in the Bone, on the extremes of the kind of hatred that took the lives on April 13th of a man, woman, and teenager. History is alive, and its lessons wrap around us more closely during times like this, which means we need look more closely at history and wrap around each other more tightly. I felt this so fully during the vigil last week when many of you and others sang some of the songs of my traditions, my people, as if they were your own songs too — and this moved me and still moves me immensely. While I do feel more vulnerable as a Jew right now, I also feel more grateful to be part of events IMG_0020like this, in which we come together in friendship and respect to listen to and learn from each other.

Yet the real and enduring loss and pain for all who knew and loved Terri LaManno, Reat Griffin Underwood, and Dr. William Lewis Corporon is beyond our power to heal. What we can do, we must do, with an open heart. So let’s take a moment of silence to send our deepest wishes and prayers for comfort and peace to the families and friends of Terri LaManno, who her daughter calls “a beautiful soul”; Reat Griffin Underwood, a high school student who loved singing and life; and Dr. William Lewis Corporon, a beloved physician and family man.

May their memory be for blessing.

With An Outstretched Hand


With an outstretched hand, you turn to me, and I turn to you

at the moment we’re united by what was meant to divide us.

The night cools around us. The next day rises. Still, nothing

we know can speak comfort except the passage of time

behind us, ahead of us, and right now: the lantern that leads us

from here to where we can speak without fear or forgetting

what’s inside our roundest words. The tree of life on the corner

powers into blossom. The soft rain welcomes us home

to synagogues, mosques, churches; to clearings in the cedars

or prairies bowed low by wind; to sudden ponds round as the

rounding moon that sheds light to remind us how much is alive

and calling our true names in the darkness. We reach toward

the inexplicable in sorrow, in outrage, in shaken and strengthened

courage, and hold on tight. We hold the loss of those we love

or never got the chance to meet, and find the light shimmering

after the storm, catching our faces at dusk as we turn to each other,

love what teaches us to stretch new ways toward love. The dissolving

sky of one April day reaches out its outstretched hand to lead us

out of the desert where my outstretched heart meets yours,

yours meets mine, and we cross over in the cacophony

of our prayers: Allah, Thunder, God, Great Spirit, Jesus,

First Lily-of-the-Valley, Buddha, Krishna, Expanding Cosmos,

homecoming all to the the world held together

by our outstretched hands.



Inventorying the Pettinesses (and Trying Not To Channel Darth Vader): Everyay Magic, Day 732

There’s nothing like a convergence of the ongoing Days of Awe, when Jews are supposed to look at our shortcomings and make amends, and a bout of insomnia to catalyze awareness on steroids. So the other night, unable to sleep, I tossed and turned over my own flaws, which were many, and in the middle of night, seemed Empire-State-Building in size. Where I landed most was on my capacity to be petty.

I come by pettiness naturally. My dad was the master in this realm, able to make anything from a small offense to an actual compliment into a call to arms. One time when he was visiting me in Lawrence, while we were walking down Massachusetts Street, I high-fived a friend. Months later, I discovered my dad was convinced that the high five was a secret signal to make fun of him. A pebble of an issue would be escalated into the end of the world as we know it. When I was very young, our family and my dad’s brother’s family would meet for dinner regularly at the home of my grandparents. My dad and his brother would, sometime after dessert, argue so vigorously that each would declare the other one dead to him, only to make plans a few days later to meet for dinner next weekend. Old arguments weren’t forgotten either, just stowed away for future ammunition.

Although I haven’t declared anyone living as dead to me, I have my moments too. In the last week, I realized I responded, although seemingly politely, to a literary situation in a way I’m not ashamed of: I very daintily pulled rank. As a writer, I’ve had rank pulled on me a thousands different ways over the years, part and parcel of the craziness of some centers of the literary world. It was always something I swore I would never do, yet when the phrase, “Don’t they know who I am?” in the gravelly voice of Darth Vader, I knew I was in trouble.

I apologized, regrouped, and am trying to stay more aware, yet I know it’s likely I’ll be petty again in the future when my awareness slips and ego flares. It’s a little like my propensity to indulge in a bit of dessert after dinner when I know so clearly the next morning that sugar after 6 p.m. means the migraine the next day. Some habits die hard.

Meanwhile, I try to pay attention to the motives behind the words ticker-taping across my mind before they cross my lips, and for added reinforcement, when I catch myself in time, I’ll high-five my shadow.