Counting Stars, Time, and Remembering Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 880

10801514_10152411963826315_5462935666005367948_nLast night, I stood on the wet back deck of our house in my leopard-print fleece bathrobe late at night, head tilted back, counting the seconds between falling stars. It was late, the sheer clouds dissipating after a day of enormous rain. Inside, the clean house hummed its happy song after the warmth and light of the Hanukkah party, the air still enhanced by what frying potatoes and onions can do for a home.

All day, I had been thinking about a year ago when our dear friend Jerry died after either a short or long illness, depending on how you count. I heard the news in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Kansas City, just after leading a writing workshop at Turning Point for people living with serious illness. Hanging up my phone, I was shocked although the doctor in Jerry’s intensive care unit told us it would be a roller coaster when it came to knowing if he would survive. I remember walking into Trader Joe’s and putting various things in a shopping cart, but not whether I actually checked out or just wandered out of the store.

At our Hanukkah party a year ago, another way to count the time from there to here, still in shock about Jerry’s death, we sang two of his favorite songs–James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and Chet Powers’ “Get Together.” This year, right before we lit the candles, we had a moment of silence to remember Jerry and/or whoever we loved who was gone or far away.

Yesterday, the Turning Point writers gave a public reading where they shared startling images and enduring stories of what it means to find courage, meaning, even joy in the web of mortality. The reading, held on a Saturday, resonated with Jerry dying on the Saturday I was with these writers, another way to count time. Like the Turning Point writers, Jerry struggled with serious illness. Unlike them, he didn’t go on to share his story of coming back from this brink.
Considering Jerry in the year in between his death and now has brought me surprising joys, such as finding friendship with Jerry’s sisters and brothers (he had six!) after we bonded in a hospital waiting room, telling stories of him as a boy and10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_n man around a fake fire while drinking mediocre cups of coffee. I’ve seen them at his moving memorial (“Jerry on the prairie!“), and for meals and even some music several times in Minneapolis. I tell them that we’re each other’s Jerrys now.

At the same time, it hurts when someone you love dies, especially in a scenario that, had any of us known all the pieces of the crazy-quilt puzzle, we might have prevented. I’ve ferried my guilt through many layers of rationalization, disappointment in myself, and big-picture framing, understanding both that he chose this, and I still wish I had intervened more. I’m beyond grateful for the days we had during his last week, especially the night I played James Taylor and other songs I knew he loved from my phone, held his hand, told him I loved him, and chided him, despite and because he was on a vent at the time, for not holding up his end of the conversation.

Yet the conversation doesn’t end. Shivering but determined to see more falling stars, I scanned the sky, wondering where best to aim my eyes, and how to better open my peripheral vision to catch the ride of a particle of dust from the stars to the earth. “You didn’t fail me,” I dreamed Jerry said after his death. The Geminid meteor shower didn’t either although there was a long stretch between the first two falling stars and the next. Just as I was about to give up, a large white meteor flew east to west, dissolving in the dark. I wrapped my robe tighter and went back into the warm house where sleep and the rest of my life awaited me.

Birthday Wars: Everyday Magic, Day 879

I was born sharing my birthday because I popped into this world on my dad’s birthday. Add to that the occasional swirl or Hanukkah spread over my birthday, and some years it was a triple share. As a kid greedy to get as many gifts and as much attention as possible, this wasn’t always so much fun, especially when gifts counted for both my birthday and Hanukkah. As an adult, it all turned around and keeps twirling.

My birthday wars started dissolving when, in my 20s, my good friend Mike often arranged for me to have breakfast annually with a wild cast of characters with the same birthday: Ed Dutton, a great activist and professor who organized alongside Ceser Chevez ; Dan Wildcat, a native American educator and writer; Nancy Hiebert, a former county commissioner; Arden Booth, one of the late and great Lawrencians, founder of KLWN radio, senator and cattleman (read his self-authored obituary, which he recorded to have broadcast at his funeral too); and a guy named Gib who could pay the shit out of the banjo. We’d meet at the old Paradise (a restaurant many of us miss like crazy) where certain topics related to local development were off the table, but on the table were pots of coffee, piles of pancakes, and yelling at each other, “Thanks, and happy birthday TO you!”

Until my dad died in 2003, I would call him every birthday, and have the identical conversation, starting with “Happy birthday,” and “Happy birthday.” Hannukah-birthday convergences brought me many more candles and a lot more laughter too.

So last night when I kept running into people who shared my birthday, it was old home week for me. First, at the reading Stephen Locke and I did at The Writers Place, I met with a man who shared my birthday and, as luck with have it, loved wild weather. Then, at Bo-Ling’s on the Plaza, where I went for dinner with friends, the birthday wars resurfaced with a lot of singing and a photo op. First, the table to the left of us, packed with a gaggle of beautiful teenage girls, sang “Happy Birthday” to one of their own. Then our table sang me “Happy Birthday,” the birthday table beside us joining us loudly. I thought that was it, but then another table of beautiful teens to the right of us blasted into “Happy Birthday” to someone there. A few minutes later, our waiter came by and said, “We’re going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ again here to beat all those kids.” So we did, this time all the tables in the restaurant joining in and singing as loud as possible. In hysterical joy, I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.

IMG_0625Afterwards, I ferreted out the other birthday girls, and here we are. One of us is 15, one of us is 18, and one of us in 56, absolutely sure she wouldn’t go back to 15 or 18 for all the riches of the world. One thing I have noticed about December-fourthers is that when it comes to our lives, there’s nothing quiet, and we certainly get better with age. When someone asked Arden Booth what he thought people said about him behind his back, he said, “My God, what’s he going to do next?” I can only hope to aspire to the same reputation.

Simple Gifts: Everyday Magic, Day 878

IMG_0427A few nights ago, I was driving home from helping take care of someone suffering from dementia, worried about the wild mixture of fear, anger, distance, and vulnerability I had just witnessed, when “Simple Gifts” came on Kansas Public Radio, this version performed by the Turtle Creek Chorale. The blend of voices, and the words I had fallen in love with decades before wrapped around me like a cashmere scarf:

‘Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
to turn, turn, will be our delight
till by turning, turning we come round right.

As someone who often feels riddled by complexity, I’ve found myself gravitating toward songs about simplicity for years, but what speaks to me most in this one is the “turning, turning” to come round right, often because we don’t know how much turning — and changing for that matter — we have to do to snap into place. I’m also drawn to the bowing and bending despite my propensity (as well as most human’ propensity) to hold onto and control.  Coming down to where she should be speaks to the ground that holds us and holds us up, humility and release, the ease and challenge of returning to the source. This translates for me into expanding our peripheral vision to see an expanded world, and softening our gaze to look with greater compassion.

Life does this song’s bidding all the time: it spins us around, knocks us over, breaks our will, and brings us home, one way or another. Between this Thanksgiving and the last, I can land on many moments my being sung “Simple Gifts,” whether it was the death of my dear friend Jerry last December or coming down with yet another sinus infection last week. Life is rarely the way I think it is, and when I’m tilted out of such thinking, I try to remember that while not all gifts are simple, our gratitude, acceptance, and recognition of life being life can turn and turn us until we come round right.

A Startling Implosion: Everyday Magic, Day 876

I went to see McCollum Hall, a 10-story dorm, being imploded without knowing why, but drawn in like thousands of others.  After all, how often do you get to see a massive thing disappeared? At the same time, I knew I was a bit of a hypocrite for going: for months, I complained about the impending destruction of a building that had (at least to my uneducated eyes) good bones but needed a lot of work. Why not turn it into a high-rise bevy of artist studios or, despite and because it’s in the middle of a bunch of dorm, housing for the homeless?

Getting closer to the implosion site, arriving just a few minutes beforehand and half a block away, I found an old friend, Kelly,  someone I was very thankful to hang out with. Everyone and their dog were there: crowded of families gathered for the the oncoming holiday, gaggles of students and locals, some in flocks and some solo, many with cameras, cell phones and i-pads aimed toward the site to capture what would happen. An extended Mennonite family flanked us on one site, and a bunch of teenagers on the other.

Kelly reminded me about a quote from Marx about how capitalism thrives on destroying perfectly salvageable things to create perfectly new things. We were catching up on people we knew, meeting his co-workers, talking about how crazy this all was until the explosions began banging out their steady blasts, 16 in all, each one reverberating through our bodies and the bodies of all around us. Then the middle of the building poured down, bringing with it the right wing and then the left until everything was hidden in thick smoke. When it cleared, from the angle where we stood — which hid the new debris — there was nothing but the buildings behind McCollum.

Walking back, continuing to catch up with Kelly, I realized I was scared by the implosion, even knowing it would happen. We talked of the historic resonances: 9/11, bombing in Beirut, terrorist attacks around the world then and now. By the time I reached my car, I felt no joy, relief or excitement, but only a door slightly open into the kind of terror many in the world face, the setting off of dynamite and other explosives right before something terrible happens. At the same time, I can understand the joy, the sense of that-was-fucking-amazing! that permeated the crowd. I also know it’s just a building, one being cleared away after two new dorms were recently built nearby. So I don’t mean to channel Debbie Downer here, but given the news reports everyday of the ways in which explosives break lives, I drove away sad and startled.

When the Ocean is There, Jump In: Everyday Magic, Day 875

IMG_0511Yesterday, I jumped into the Gulf of Mexico in my clothes because it was there, the water was shining and warm, and occasionally I’m no fool. Today, I waded into the Atlantic Ocean, this time with in a bathing suit thanks to my mom reminding me I might want a towel (which made me remember that the swimsuit is also a nifty idea).

Living in Kansas, where both swimming in salt water, let alone oceans, and seeing dolphins (which I saw both days) is usually something only accomplished through lucky dreamed sleep, I didn’t want to let all that seawater slip away from my skin, let alone the wild and swift rolling surface. Today, Ken and I were slammed by wave after wave coming up behind me. Sometimes we jumped in time, sometimes the rush of salt water soaked our heads at high speed. Whatever the case, I felt more than my body lifting toward shore and pulled back out by the undertow. Although I could be bias from having grown up near the shore — close to Coney Island in Brooklyn, and later the Jersey shore — I believe our beings have evolved with a yearning to home in when it comes to large bodies of water.

Such bodies also help me remember my own in the literal meaning of remember: to bring back together our extending-outward members (legs, arms) to the oneness we are individually, and in the case of breathing, swimming, or otherwise interacting with the world, the oneness we are with this planet. When I walked into the quiet Gulf waters yesterday, everything blue lit gold by the light, I was a little frightened to lean forward into swimming, which is a lot like leaning forward in a dream so that we can fly. Maybe it was the baby shark we saw a fisherman tossing back in earlier, but I suspect it was simply that process of forgetting and remembering ourselves at once in surrendering to such a large being: the life force of ocean. Once I did, my feet were hesitant to reach for the ground again.IMG_0483

Today, each wave that broke right before it gathered me up, and each wave that rose me up in its breaking felt like what it was: such a gift. Two days, two bodies of water that are really one (not to mention all those the water gives life to in the sea and land), and I can still taste the salt on my fingers. Within a few days, back in the prairies, which once were an inland ocean, I’ll remember this, and as best I can, keep remembering myself back together.


Give Me Your Huddled Masses: Everyday Magic, Day 873

IMG_1068While reading news of so many American governors proclaiming that Syrian refugees aren’t welcome in their states and, over the last two days, giving presentations on the Holocaust, I keep thinking of two things: how this very country refused Jewish refugees during Hitler’s reign, and this famous quote from an Emma Lazarus poem that adorns a plaque on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Anne Frank
Anne Frank

The resonances are everywhere. The Washington Post today reprinted a poll from Fortune Magazine in July 1938 that reported that 67.4% of respondents leaned against opening our doors to refugees from Germany-occupied countries. Even more alarming is a statistic I shared with participants in my K.U. Osher class based on my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other: according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 1933-1943, there were 400,000 unfilled immigration slots for European Jews, including even a request from Anne Frank’s father, Otto, to get his family to America.

How this all adds up is obvious here, a place in which refugees overran, stole from, murdered, and greatly damaged the native peoples living here, and made of them refugees in their own land. My people, like your people, found or lost refuge here (found in the case of my eastern European grandparents). Although there’s plenty now that’s an overwhelming mess of infinite proportions, especially regarding how we treat each other, America and so much of the rest of the world is a constant experiment in bringing together people who otherwise wouldn’t find each other. We are each other’s huddled masses, and one way or another, we always have been.

Tipping Points: Everyday Magic, Day 872

IMG_0424The trees have held onto their leaves long beyond most Novembers although many of the leaves are darkening in color and lightening in weight. A good storm or two, a strong cold front, and we’ll have tipped into winter or at least its early scouts.

More or less, we’re at a tipping point all the time, always on the cusp of change, but sometimes it just seems more so this way. Sitting in at Unity Village where Kelley and I are about to lead replenishing Brave Voice retreat, I’m more aware of how things seem to be swiftly preparing to change. A lot of travel and work-related overwhelm behind me is smoothing out for a winter, I hope, that includes more time to sit in one place, read a novel, and hold the cats. Many projects of house renewal are done: walls painted, floored tiled or pergo-ed, a porch cleaned, and many multitude of Ikea things snapped or screwed together. My stint as acting program director of the Goddard Graduate Institute is winding down in about six weeks, and I’ve managed to dull some of the sharper edges of that learning curve. The retreat Kelley and I have been dreaming up together is about to start and unfold, giving me time to hold the space for others and myself to pay more attention to the real world. And night is about to reach the tipping point of day.

There comes a moment in all tipping points when the weight shifts just enough for one thing to turn into another, and here we are — always — on this bright and dark November night with gratitude and curiosity for all.