A Good Rain in a Time of Cancer: Everyday Magic, Day 814

I’m sitting in the middle of my screened-in-porch while thunders roars to my east, and wind swooshes from my west. The sound of the rain is as deafening as, just an hour ago, the sound of the cicadas, roaring so loudly that our conversation with friends had an added soundtrack. September poured in with the storms last night after a week of big heat, and now, there’s another storm, reminding me how much can change so fast.

For the last week, I’ve felt like many in my community were living in a cancer minefield. A close friend’s adult daughter, facing stage 4 liver cancer, pours heart and soul into what her family calls an ultimate healing journey. A dear one navigates difficult days and nights with advanced breast cancer. Another friend faces complex treatments for prostate cancer, and another endures the reality of an unstoppable cancer growing slowly in his spine. News of diagnoses land in my heart in the bakery or at a gathering, across the Facebook feed and through the phone lines. Knowing that one in three of us will have or already has had some form of cancer is knowing that we live in a cancer epidemic, but most of the time, the urgency of this crisis doesn’t drive the bus of my life.

I have no doubt based on research and the wisdom of many who have studied this extensively as to how much this epidemic comes from what we as a species have done to this earth. How could we not be shaped and infused by our poisoning of air, water, earth? Stephanie Mills, one of my favorite writers, says it well:

Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.

So there is this: dear ones trying new combinations of traditional chemotherapy and holistic medicines, or just trying to feel their way in the dark through what’s unfolding, healing whether or not a cure is possible, in their time. But there is also this: an early autumn rain, and the sound of that rain as well as the air it permeates blessing whatever and whoever it touches.

The rain reminds me that my job is to open my eyes and heart, easier when the weather is luscious and my community is thriving. How we treat one another, how we treat ourselves, matters even more when the stakes are high, losses unfathomable, and beauty of simply being alive so exquisite. The sweetness of this moment, as well as the snippets of sweetness in the hardest moments, lands everywhere. The rain lessens, then stops with all its remnants dripping from the edge of the porch and steady trees. A cricket makes its music. I wait between the words I write, loving as best I can.

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.

Running with the Ruling Class: Everyday Magic, Day 812

Here I am in my bigger, better first class seat.
Here I am in my bigger, better first class seat.

When I saw those stark words — “Flight Delayed” — on my computer at 7:30 this morning, I went from barely awake to fight-or-flight (without the flight) caffeination. Within 30 minutes, I had speed-showered, rushed over to my office (one of the few places on the Goddard campus where I could use a phone that didn’t drop every call), and discovered all was well, if not delayed, in the universe, and something else too: a welcome to First Class.

What? I had to read it several times. Seems that my projected two-hour delay was bumping me from downstairs to upstairs. Having never flown first class before, my mind doggie-paddled with possibilities. Would there be champagne, caviar, jumbo shrimp, hot chocolate chip cookies? Maybe I’d be offered a steaming towel to refresh my face after the complementary manicure. What actually happened behind the blue curtain?

The whole thing reminded me of a lodging upgrade a few months ago in Kalamazoo when my cheapest-room-within-walking-distance-of-the-train-station was suddenly upgraded to a grand suite. When I checked in, the hotel clerk asked if I wanted dishes sent up, which was my first clue that something was different. “Why would I need dishes?” I asked him. He politely explained that they could be handy in the kitchen I was getting.

I was hanging out with my friend Stephanie at the time, who had driven me to the city and was going to look at my room with me before we dined and parted. Having just spent five days in her small book-lined house in the woods with a woman who wrote a book called Epicurian Simplicity, I was more than dazed when we went up to the suite. “I can’t stay here! It’s much too big,” I told her as we tentatively opened cabinets, ran from room to room, and opened the drapes to reveal floor-to-ceiling windows curving around the corner of the large living room/dining room/kitchen. I have no idea why I was given that space, but after detailed discussions about whether I should beg for something more humble, I surrendered to luxury. Amazing how fast we can get used to fancy digs: by the next morning, I was reluctant to leave.

It’s interesting to glimpse how the upper 10% (or whatever percent) lives, but the most fun part of it all was speaking with a U.S. Airways rep before the flight when I told her I had a stupid question to ask her. “There are no stupid questions,” she said.

“Actually, I think there are many stupid questions in the world, but here’s mine: do they feed us in first class? I usually grab some dinner at the airport, but is there going to be fine china and gourmet food in my near future?”

She checked the computer as if what I was asking wasn’t so stupid, then told me the truth. “No, not on the 5:15 p.m. flight.” Instead, there are slightly bigger seats with more room between them. Also, the plastic drink cups are a few ounces bigger, and we were offered a choice of a treat (pretzels, tiny packs of cookies, or potato chips). The cookies I surely don’t need are not baking on board, and there’s no hot wash clothes being doled out with sterling silver tongs. So I do have to wonder why people would pay hundreds of dollars more for a packaged fig bar with their slightly-taller glass of ginger ale.On the other hand, no need to look a gift horse in the mouth. Instead, we ride on, the whole plane engulfed in some turbulence right now, first class as well as coach class being jerked around in our seat belts as we dream of solid ground.

Back on the Bike: Everyday Magic, Day 811

photo 2A few days ago, I got on a bike, and took off down the trail alongside Lake Champlain. The water flashed on one side, the woods or houses eeked by on the other. I pumped hard or glided, stopped slow or sped by, loving the way the wind rushed by my face as the path meandered through woodlands and housing, the wind or sun taking center stage at various intervals.

As a kid, I lived on my bike, a daily ritual of pouring down the hill where I lived or trudging back up when it was time to go home. My bike was my horse, and I rode her from the time the snow and ice receded enough for clear streets until the first fierce rains of late November. My bike was an extension of my body, my vehicle for wind-making, my vessel of small journeys and big dreams. Rounding corners and coasting down stretches, I soared past my problems at home, home and beyond, and imagined great love, abundant community, brilliant work. Biking was a way of dreaming and praying at once.

photo 4-1As a 20-year-old interning for a labor newspaper in St. Louis the summer of 1980 (when the temperature, and subsequently, death toll, rose), I knew no one outside of my highly-dysfunctional workplace, and my only transportation was bike or bus. All summer, I rode that bike at twilight along grimy highways, skirting traffic, aiming for shade. It was one of the loneliest summers of my life, but while on the bike, I had traction and motion. I sweated myself into some sense of peace.

In the years since, I’ve had bouts of bike-love, but living in the country for the last 20 years, time on the bike diminished although occasionally, I do load the bike into the car, drive to the river, and hit the trail.

Hugging Lake Champlain, the trail couldn’t have been more scenic. The temperature rose or fell depending on shade or proximity to the water. By the time I found the Causeway — a three or four mile stretch of the trail surrounded by water on both sides of this crescent of thin land in the big lake. The way back was harder than I expected, and I wondered if I would have enough energy to get myself back, and get back in time for my ride to Goddard. The miles back photo 3-1stretched out before me.

Then I was there. Red-faced and covered in sweat, I turned my bike in. 19 or so miles in 2.5 hours — a leisurely ride according to most standards. The first glass of ice water was heaven. My legs wobbled, my butt ached, and my thighs were a tad numb. But happiness swept over me just like the wind that welcomed me back as I biked slow or fast through the bright air.

Ellis Island, Where Past Generations of Us Came First: Everyday Magic, Day 810

IMG_1072
Forest, about to enter the building his great-grandparents passed through to make a life here.

Yesterday, Forest and I went, for the first time, to Ellis Island after a suitably long but fast-moving line for tickets, then security, then the ferry brought us there. Here is the place where my grandmother Molly, fresh from Poland and alone at age nine, landed in the early 1900s, and where my grandpa Dave landed as a young kid, although he had parents and grandparents in tow. All of them fled pogroms and other waves of discrimination against Jews to take their chances on America.

IMG_1074The first floor displays highlighted various waves of discrimination that rained through our history. The second floor was another story (literally). Standing in the great hall, the large registry area, I was blown away by the beauty, vastness, and history of the place. From the basket-weave design of the ceiling to the ornate but functional columns, the place just exhaled a million stories, both of those who passed through here, and those who created this place.

My hair saluting the Statue of Liberty on the way to Ellis Island
My hair saluting the Statue of Liberty on the way to Ellis Island

I thought about what it must have been like in the first decade of the last century for my maternal grandparents (from Poland and Lithuania), and about 20 years earlier, for my paternal great-grandparents (from Russia and Romania), especially my grandmother. Considering our current news stories on all the kids arriving alone to America, it’s no surprise to find, at Ellis Island, that flinging yourself (or being flung) hundreds or thousands of miles from home to land here is an old American story. This article from Mother Jones that came my way when I got back from Ellis Island affirms such a tradition, most of the children leaving everything and everyone they loved to escape pogroms and other threats, just as we have so many children over the border today, sent here to escape drug-trafficking, enslaved prostitution, and other kinds of deaths.  As the Mother Jones article concludes:

And of course, many of those kids grew up to work tough jobs, start new businesses and create new jobs, and pass significant amounts of wealth down to some of the very folks clamoring to “send ‘em back” today.

Meanwhile, yesterday still reaches us with its hunger and pain, loss and risk, and all else that brought so many of us here today, privileged to live with freedom and opportunity.

When An Evangelical Christian Makes a Jewish Poet Pump Iron: Everyday Magic, Day 809

IMG_0959For the last two years, I’ve met with Kevin almost every week at the gym so he could kick my ass. He was my trainer, pushing me to lift more weight than I thought my arms could support, do more repetitions of leg lifts or the dreaded split squats, and push the prowler (a heavy iron sled loaded with weights) further than my legs, back and arms knew was possible. There’s been all manner of dumbbells and rubber bands, bending and standing, pushing and pulling. Most days, I would walk in thinking, “What have I got myself into?” only to walk out telling myself, “I’m a total badass” (maybe an effect of the refreshing protein shake I was rewarded with at the end of a session).

Kevin and I have, at least on the surface, little in common. He’s an evangelical Christian, and I’m a practicing Jew. He’s less than half my age, never lived through the era of the Monkees or without computers around all the time. I lived through the 60 and 70s, danced with Sufis, chanted with Hare Krishnas, and don’t even get us started on our differences when it comes to the more polarizing social issues of the day.

Under the surface, we’ve found all manner of alignment in our concern for community, belief in a just world, urgency in acting for what we see as bringing about change, and love for being alive. During arm lifts, while he tapped the muscles in my upper back to remind me to get out of my shoulders, we discussed, debated, found and lost common ground in theological issues. In the endless 30-40 seconds I would be holding still in a plank pose, I would beg him to tell me his wedding plans to distract me from the overwhelming urge to collapse. Occasionally, I would joke with him, when he gave me something especially impossible to do, “Is this because I’m not a follower of Jesus?” We laughed almost as much as we talked. Interfaith weight-lifting, anyone?

Last week, we did our last — at least for a while — session together. The need for a new roof on our house, and my urge to explore a far less expensive group training sessions, pull me away from one-on-one training. Hugging Kevin to say goodbye, I was grateful not just for how much stronger my arms, legs, core and gluts are, but my heart too. We are meant to lift difficult issues together with grace and humor, acknowledging the hard work, talking deeply and lightly with people very different from us, and, at times (as I once told Kevin), accepting the quandary of irreconcilables.

Sneak Preview: Marching with Zombies (from POEM ON THE RANGE): Everyday Magic, Day 808

IMG_0806At 7 p.m., Tues., July 29, we’re launching my new book, Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song To Kansas through a reading at The Raven Bookstore. I’m honored to be co-launching with Roy Beckemeyer and his fine collection of poetry, Music I Could Once Dance To (both Coal City Press publications). Please join us  for some reading, some stories, some poems, a bit of wine and some cookies, and a whole lot of celebration! In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview from my book.

Undead Poet Laureate of Kansas,” I had Ken magic-marker onto a white shirt, and then, with a purse full of bookmarks to commemorate the occasion, I waved goodbye to my live husband and went with my eldest son to march with the undead. The Lawrence Zombie Parade brought together well over 500 of the living dead, including the undead Santa, undead Harry Potter, undead Batman accompanied by undead cowgirl, and many undead brides sporting rubber intestines spilling out of their satin and lace gowns.

The organizers in the gazebo at South Park gave everyone a lesson on how to shamble — drag one leg while leading with the other — and appropriate roars and groans worthy of a zombie. Then we were off, heading toward Massachusetts Street.

A woman holding the leash of an invisible zombie dog worked hard to keep her invisible pooch from attacking live dogs. Zombie parents pushed zombie babies. A toddler with perfect red horns growing out of his tow head giggled loud while someone said, “What an adorable little devil baby!” Drunken college kids brushed fake blood stained arms against old-time zombies. Outside the Toy Store, a team of employees, equipped with Nerf guns, kept the zombies at bay while a dignified zombie couple carried their live (and quite beautiful) chickens past the tattoo parlor.

My favorite was the entire undead cast of Gilligan’s Island. A zombie dad dragged his zombie daughter while everyone laughed. A hip couple walked by with a zombie ferret (make up was particularly impressive). Zombie 1950s dads walked by reading zombie newspapers.

Meanwhile, whoever read my shirt or bookmark, connecting what “undead” had to do with the state of the arts in Kansas, laughed and occasionally applauded. On this night, it was okay to be in a program that’s undead, particularly because I believe it will cross over from this hazy hemisphere into pure life. Besides, on nights like this one, I’ve got a lot of vivid company.