Monthly Archives: January 2012

Are You the Pretender?: Everyday Magic, Day 491

I was rushing about the small kitchen of Turning Point: The Center for Healing and Hope, making coffee and putting fruit on trays, when an elderly man stopped his walker in front of me and said, “Are you the pretender?”

“The pretender?”

“For the poetry class.”

“Yes, I am,” I told him, realizing he meant “presenter” or maybe I just heard “pretender,” but in any case, I am the pretender. Some people are born to take to pretending like dogs take to trash bags, and I’m one of them. As a kid, I remember frequently running down my suburban block to the bus stop while deep in fantasy that I was rushing to the stage to accept my Oscar. “I want to thank the Academy, and especially all the little people — you know who you are — for making my dream come true,” I would announce.

Not surprisingly, my report cards often had two comments: “Caryn daydreams too much” and “Caryn could do better if she just tried harder.” I didn’t have time to try harder because I was daydreaming elaborate scenarios of publishing books, holding art shows, marrying the love of my life on a mountain top, and touring with my imaginary band, the Rootin’ Shootin’ Tootets (I was lead singer and lead tambourine-on-thigh banger).

Fast forward to now, and I make a living largely out of helping others pretend. “Trust yourself,” I always tell each writing class, and most of my students at Goddard too. “And if you don’t trust yourself, pretend you do until it’s true.” The only way to do what feels impossible to many of us is to suspend disbelief (e.g. pretend otherwise) so that we can make changes in ourselves that we couldn’t have fathomed otherwise.

Writing is an act of both daring and imagination channeled through moving fingers and held afloat by pretending it will amount to something (if not now, in time). I started this post thinking only of that scene in Turning Point without any idea of what I would be by this paragraph. I love what William Stafford says about words inventing words, and what Robert Frost points to about way leading to way. Whether I’m writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a blog post or a song, I put on my pretend hat, game for where imagination, luck, rhythm and voice will take me. Just like Emily Dickinson parodies  — “Split the lark, and you’ll find the music” — I can’t get to where I don’t yet imagine by mapping it out ahead of time or taking apart what keeps the lark singing.

There’s something else I’ve learned which fuels all all I do: making stuff up and making things (out of words and other arts) is the fastest road and most scenic way to get to what is most worth knowing in life. Because by pretending — like invoking all the names of God on the basis that we can’t truly name such expansive mystery and grace — you can get closer to the fire of what’s real.

In the Center of Everything: Everyday Magic: Day 490

I write this post from the center of Kansas in Wilson, which is close to the center of the continental United States. I sit in the center of a handsome leather chair while watching Oliva Newton John shock John Travolta by showing up at the fair in black leather. A yippy yappy dog barks outside, and I wonder if I’m going to hate that dog by morning. Everything is happening at the center of everything which, depending on what edges you’re measuring from, could be anywhere. By this same logic, the center could easily be the edge also, which is also true.

This week has crazy quilt of centers and edges. Driving through the Flint Hills this morning, I was so exhilarated with the beauty of the bright blue sky against the rise and fall of hills that I had to wonder what was wrong with me, given that Lou died two days ago. Since then, I’ve been crying on and off, unable to concentrate, and feeling that crazy ache that comes from grief. Nothing made sense, and everything seemed inexorably scattered and tangled. Until it wasn’t.

The other day at Z’s, Stan gave me a hug and told me that when loss happens, everything is more vivid, and you can see and feel into the center of each moment. It’s true, but of course, having grieved, we now know the pathway to that rich, tender, heart-breaking and alive moment available when we’re in the center of joy or at the edges of despair. I will try to remind myself of this when, about 3 a.m. or so, I wake cursing the barking dog, and especially tomorrow night when I gather with others at the center of our community to say Kaddish for Lou.

For the Love of Lou Frydman, July 1, 1930 – January 24, 2012: Everyday Magic, Day 489

Jane and Lou

All last night I thought about Lou, waking between my dreams to wonder if he was still alive, feeling that sense of Lou-ness surrounding me. His voice is vivid to me (especially his laughter), and no wonder since I have dozens of hours of interviews with him and many years of hearing his stories of surviving and making a new life after all his family members, except for his brother, were killed in the holocaust that put him through six concentration camps and three death marches. I know Lou from the vantage point of being his friend, but also his biographer (for the book Needle in the Bone about the Lou and his dear friend, Jarek, who was a Polish resistance fighter during the war).

Jarek & Maura

All last night, I also thought of Jarek’s wife, Maura, who died on this precise day one year ago. Maura was so full of spirit and sass, laughter and outrageously entertaining stories that it’s still astonishing to comprehend that she simply stopped being alive a year ago today.

I awondered if Lou would die on this anniversary, especially after I saw him Sunday, lying so still on the hospital bed in the living room, only opening one eye in understanding when I kissed him goodbye. It turns out he did: at 3:30 this morning, peacefully at home with Jane by his side.

There are those who might say Lou lived a long life, with a notable second act supreme after surviving Budzyn, one of the most brutal concentration camps; the selection process at Auschwitz; and many near-death, nothing-left-to-lose experiences. But none of those rationales mean anything to me or those of us who love him: Lou is dead, and when someone you love dies, it is always too soon, and it always breaks your heart into a million pieces.

Driving to and from Topeka where I had dental work (a good diversion actually because the physical pain distracts from the broken heart), sometimes crying so hard that I kept taking wrong turns, I thought about Lou and his family. Although there was no way he wanted to die, at least he died the way he chose: at home, in the peace that befits such a gentle man, and with Jane beside him after many family members from Lawrence to Paris, San Antonio to Northampton, called and visited, told him how much he was and still is loved.

But what speaks to me most is how he lived. He found the strength to go on after his father was shot, mother was gassed, and extended family members were

Lou shortly after the war

killed. He survived starvation, illness, oceans of loss, greedy foster families, having to learn multiple languages on a dime, and moreover, the world in which he grew up being utterly destroyed beyond recognition. He and Jane, who was able to flee Europe with her parents before being sent to the camps, made a life here that rippled out into two more generations.

What Lou gave me — the gift of hearing his story, threaded with laughter that took the edge off the unimaginable horrors of it, and the gift of trusting me to convey his story to others — is one of the greatest gifts of my life.

Note to Self: Don’t Try to Do Everything Yourself: Everyday Magic, Day 488

A few days ago, I wrote about teaching myself to update my website, building on my scant knowledge of code and lots of experience with wordpress sites. I hoped, like Bridget Jones, that I wouldn’t end up serving company blue soup with strings in it. Well, it turns out I made a lot of blue soup, and not just with strings, but pebbles, motor oil, sand and organutan droppings. Or another way of putting it is that like my dance performance when I was a little kid, I fell over and knocked over all the other little girls in the line.

So now a very sweet and good person is working on fixing a very big problem.

How did this happen? I followed instructions, tried to be careful, and acted on the belief that I could and would figure this out. But knowing a little is far more dangerous sometimes that knowing nothing.

Which leads me to this very basic realization: sometimes you shouldn’t try to do everything yourself. Give me a poem to whip into shape, a soup to cook, or some tiles to grout, and I’m your girl. Put me into the ftp Alice-in-Wonderland world, and I can be danger to myself and others. This isn’t to say it’s not worth teaching ourselves new things, only that we have to recognize that whatever we try out is linked to others (especially on the web).

Toddler Refueling All Our Lives Long: Everyday Magic, Day 487

When my kids were toddlers, they would sometimes rush and fall toward me, grab hold of my knee for a second, exhale as if they were finally safe, and then toddle off, even if that meant crashing into the floor again. I read that this behavior is officially deemed “toddler refeuling.” Now that the kids are mostly or completely grown (whatever that means), they still fill up at the mom, mostly by calling with split second pieces of news before saying, “Gotta go.” Sometimes it’s a facebook message, a text, a look across the room, but basically they’re just touching base before tumbling out into the big and unpredictable world.

I realize that I do my own toddler refueling, but my version takes the form of lunch with friends. We meet over wanton soup and artichoke-spinach eggrolls,  big salads, or wide bowls of soup and tiny containers of chocolate pudding to catch up with each other, gasp in appalled support at the indignities of the world, and cheer each on in work, old marriages or new single status, ailing mothers and dead mothers, or our grown children’s latest challenges. Once I fill up at the well of friendship and enchiladas, I head back into the world renewed and just a little more steady in my steps. I also refuel through connections with Ken, making time to talk, even just for five minutes, each day, and particularly through anything that makes us laugh ourselves renewed.

Toddler refueling is a lifetime occupation. Learning to live — which goes on and on and on — is a necessary and dangerous endeavor. We come back to one other, touch someone’s knee or hand, listen and talk, and through the energy we exchange, summon the daring to head back out into the big territory that calls our name.

Teaching An Old Dog New (Virtual) Tricks: Everyday Magic, Day 486

Know that scene in Bridget Jones when after having a journalistic sensation, Bridget she has a “sneaking suspicion” that she’s also a genius in the kitchen only to end up cooking blue soup with strings in it? I’m hoping the same thing doesn’t happen to me when it comes to building on my wordpress-website-building knack. You see, I’m trying to teach myself to update my website, which has a wicked-cool design thanks to the artistry of my friend, Alexandra Hartman (now Porsi). Because of this unusually and beautiful kind of design (which one of my compared to Bollywood as a website), this site is hosted a whole different way than the way I know.

Which is all a way of saying I’m probably in over my head, but it is time for me to take over updating my own site, so I’m trying to teach myself in between asking my son questions. As a person who hates reading directions on how to do things, and yet as someone just barely wise enough to know that trial and error with one’s website can lead to massive hysterics and psychotic-evoking sleep-deprivation, I’m making myself read articles, move slow, see if I can catch on. I only know a little code (that language most websites are written in on their undersides so that they look all spiffy in their skin), and I’m stepping into a lot of the that kind of not knowing what you don’t know.

The upside is that when I learn how to do something new on this computer, I often feel like Rocky after his big fight (or Bridget Jones after that long kiss with Colin Firth). So here’s to hoping I don’t end up with stringy blue soup.

Nine Years After Dad Died: Everyday Magic, Day 485

Sitting in my friend’s living room this morning while her husband slept in a hospital bed beside us, we talked about the hospice services they’re using and about when people close to us died. She told me the dates of her parents’ deaths, both in 1999, and I told her the date of my father’s death which, as I remembered it, was today: January 18, 2003.

As I went through my day – teaching yoga, buying bananas at the store, getting my flu shot, mailing some packages – this anniversary stood in the background. My father died a relatively young man at only 63 after a very short (only four months between diagnosis and death) immersion in pancreatic cancer. I was in the middle of my own cancer treatment at the time, and actually had just had major surgery a few weeks before he died, but when Ken and I walked into his house where he had been in a coma for 10 days, it was clear he was waiting for me. He died 15 minutes after we arrived.

While I wrote of the death in more detail in my memoir, the fallout from his life and death continues to reveal itself. As time passed, I learn more about him and who I am because of him. Nine years later, I don’t exactly miss my father, but I do think of him — with affection (which was a big surprise after our tumultuous relationship all my life). If he were alive today, he would despise what’s happening politically but probably support Romney and call me an idealist for supporting Obama. He would be livid about the Wall Street bailouts  since he was a self-made man, but he would have supported all the wars that happened in the last decade, probably advocating for more, not less. Beyond that, I can’t predict what he would be like at age 73 because his dying changed him so much, and so much for the better (although that was obviously short-lived).

What I do know from my experience and the experiences of my friends who have lost parents is that we carry our moms and dads in our hip pockets our whole lives (even back when they carried us), some fire from their personality, biology, karma, bad and good luck and choices, missteps and inspiring leaps tucked into some part of us no matter where we go and what we do. The relationship continues to unfold, and their voices continue to inform, question, argue and support.

Nine years ago from tomorrow, my father was buried in a steep grave in a hilly cemetery in western Pennsylvania, but his life and death travel with me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Occasional Horror of the Basement: Everyday Magic, Day 484

It started with a mild desire to haul boxes of banking records from the 1980s off to the shred-ery, a one-day free shredding service in town. And I don’t know when or how it will end, but I can imagine what’s ahead: sorting through all manner of boxes, plastic bins, shelves of files and whatnot, trying to figure out what lives with us, what needs to be put up for adoption, and what goes to the shred-ery or recycle bin.

Our basement is our history. Down there are cherished lettered from 1981, toddler dresses full of layers and lace, handmade baby blankets from grandparents long dead, cassette mix tapes heavy on chanting and Joni Mitchell, hardened containers of paint, essays critiquing the constitution or exploring dark matter, and many pieces of clothing no one in this house will every wear again. It doesn’t bother me that so much is underneath our regular life upstairs, only that it’s kind of a disorganized mess. The camping supplies extraordinaire (everything you need for weeks of living in the mountains without human contact) spill over boxes of housing loan papers, packets of seeds never planted, and boxes full of unhappy action figures. The zigzag of what’s there overwhelms me and makes me feel like some basement in my subsonscious is going to explode out like a reverse tornado.

Unfortunately for me, no one else in my house hold feels this way about the basement, but then again, no one but me knows where anything in the basement actually is. “Will you help me clean the basement sometime?” I cheerfully ask family members. “Why?” they answer.

Fortunately, sorting through the once-loved, never-to-be-loved again or save-for-later-loving is an intriguing task. It’s fascinating, too much so, and I have to resist the urge to read Natalie fifth-grade essay on the life of Australian tree frogs or a postcard crowded with tiny print from a friend I can’t remember having.

But some day, a gal just has a lot of sorting energy, and that day is today, so I will put on my sorting hat, gather a bunch of boxes and black plastic bags, and begin the parade of our stories and history into a new order.

My Poems Travel in Packs: Everyday Magic, Day 483

Every so often someone asks what poems I’ve written lately or where they might find a poem of mine, and I don’t know what to say. My poems travel in posses and packs (a chapbook, a collection, a body of work) so much that I don’t think of them as individuals striking out into the big world alone. Instead, I see them as tribal, and whatever they do on their own, they do for the good of the tribe.

To be honest, I think the other poems in any given collection would slap or shun any poem that ran for office, paraded for adornment, or competed in American Idol. The individual poems would be forlorn to be alone too since they’ve gown up in the context of other poems. Even occasional poems fly around with the swarm of other occasional poems in their praise poem skies.

While some of the poems occasionally do a star turn (such as “Enraptured,” featured on a photo by Stephen Locke, currently on display at the Percolator Gallery), even that poem is part of an ongoing small herd of work, all concerning weather. The poem published here or there alone usually lives with other poems in a house long-ago built or just under construction.

Poems are like that, not just mine, but most poems. They’re social, and multiple births run rampart among their parents. You won’t find them isolated at spas, steeling themselves away on deserted islands or hiding out in a hermitage on the hill, but rather in the spaces where we meet and travel together. They get their ideas from one other, their linguistic GPS from the sparks they make with other poems, and their DNA from generative communities.

Climb on board one, and you’ll find yourself riding in a small and vibrant herd, into and beyond the sunset.

In Search of the Illusive Herd of Roaming Furniture: Everyday Magic, Day 482

A bouquet of furniture from an antique shop, thrift store, alleyway and yard sale

Finding furniture has been an adventure for me since I found my first chair on my first curb the first time I lived on my own. Given that I’m married to someone who doesn’t believe in ever buying new furniture (he’s sure we can get whatever we need on trash day in alleyways) and given that we devote whatever expendable income we have for travel, eating out and buying books, it’s no wonder that furniture procurement continues to be my sport of choice.

I love how what ‘m looking for will show up only with the perfect confluence of whimsy, luck, the right turn at the right time, and following whims is generally what scores the new chair, table or dresser. Living in a college town doesn’t hurt either. I also like furniture with its own history: couches that lived lives of intrigue, recliners that served a loving generation, little tables or book shelves that knew constant adventure. There’s also the utter thrill of the hunt, never knowing what I’ll find, where or when. Luckily, I drive a minivan around, and over the years I’ve hauled multiple couches, overstuffed chairs, dining sets and all manner of chair and table.

When my kids were younger, this constant open eye toward the roaming herd of furniture also allowed me to easily embarrass, delight or confuse them. Nothing like picking up your child at high school with a very long floral couch tied to the roof. The whole endeavor also gave them occasional weight-lifting excursions (“Help me haul this old recliner upstairs and then carry the new old recliner down”).

Couch beloved

Finding the couch was a particular long-term endeavor. It’s easy to catch a falling-apart, deep valley couch for free, but something comfortable, and even beautiful, not to mention well-made, can take years……or several fortunate minutes. After many not-so-comfortable or truly-ugly couches migrating through the living room, I finally bought one: an antique at a used furniture store, for which I paid more than what most of the rest of the furniture upstairs altogether cost: $350. Four years later when I look toward this couch — I’m still very satisfied with its curves and lines, fabric and feel.

Lately, I’m looking for a better big comfortable chair. Since I work out of this chair, it has to be firm, comfortable with arm rests at the right height for excessive typing, and reclinable. I haven’t found the chair yet, but I’m following the herd through thrift stores, antique shops, used furniture joints, alleyways and curb sides. Just like trying to make contact with other-than-human life forms, I know I need a soft touch, patience, espect and good timing.

I have no doubt that one day I will see my chair, my chair will see me, and wherever I’m going, whatever I’m driving, I will find a way to hoist that chair onto my vehicle and give it a new home.