It’s hard to look at the news or social media without feeling like we’ve failed as a species. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, the bees — essential for the pollination that feeds the world — are endangered, and a presidential candidate not only brags about sexual assault but calls his accusers names, all the time unleashing America’s underside of horrendous sexism, racism, xenophobia and other social illnesses. Below the splay of horrifying headlines, I’m tuned into the stories of beloved friends and family, some of whom are struggling mightily with depression, debt, grief, and other ailments of our time and propensities of being human. Having had an on-and-off-again cold and some nightmares lately, I’ve dipped into the pot of despair at my most local level too.
As I turn away from the news of collapsing politics and ecology, I also see this: the sky to the west is filling with clouds, the wind is tossing around the heads of the big, leafy trees, and the last tomatoes have ripened on the vine. The moon, rising over the field last night, lit the tips of the grasses silver. Ten hours later, the horizon shines golden white. As Charles Bukowski says in one of my favorite poems, “The Laughing Heart” (watch this great little film here!):
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
Add to that one of our favorite Leonard Cohen (and all-time-ever) choruses from his song, “Anthem,”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
So during this season of some very real despair and enduring danger all around us, I’m looking at this moment, another time of great beauty and promise, toward what light I can find, letting it penetrate the cracks I carry in my hope and heart.
A bunch of hummingbirds is called a charm, a delight and an adornment, and for the last few months, I’ve been blessed to have my view delighted and adorned by a charm of hummingbirds. At this time of September, it’s a teenage charm with the ‘rents having gone south already for their tropical vacation, and the kids, some of whom are still hanging out at my place, partying at the sugar-water hanging kegs like there’s no tomorrow.
After a usual summer of a few Ruby-throated hummingbirds hanging out at the edge of woods and near the feeders, right around early September, they seem to multiply overnight on their way south to winter in southern Mexico and northern Panama. My friend Pam, who sat quietly on our front porch with me yesterday to immerse herself n the buzz-chirp-rush of the birds, told me that the full-grown birds take off first, leaving behind the teens, who are old enough to be on their own without causing too much of a ruckus, and happy as the day is long and the feeders are full.
While the ways of the teen are somewhat mysterious in humans, when it comes to hummingbirds, that mystery deepens because of all we don’t know about them. According to some sites I perused, hummingbirds are too little (weighing about 3 grams, smaller for the teens) to carry radio transmitters, and of course, these birds are difficult to catch, handle, and band, let alone recover the banded ones. It also sounds like we just don’t know a lot about their fall migration, except they are very much creatures of habit, returning to the same feeders around the same time each spring, and the males — the ones with the beautiful ruby-colored throats — don’t linger long after mating. What we do know is hummingbirds beat their wings 53 times a second, they weigh between 0.1 and 0.2 an oz., their hearts beat the fastest of all beings — 1260 beats per minute, they can migrate about 1,500 miles in a season, and they make an outrageous amount of song and sound.
As I write this, these tiny, feisty miracles race-buzz by, then suspend themselves mid-air to stare at me, the dog, the cats — who stare back in amazement but are smart enough not to even try to get closer — before shooting off to the feeder. Sometimes there are a dozen or more zipping diagonally past each other from power line to feeder to high branch on the Osage Orange tree back around. Sometimes they squeak long dialogues before vanishing into the woods with a flash. Each swirl and angle of their flight, each call and wild rush of their wings charms all of us living this porch (and beyond) life.
Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”
Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.
Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.
Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.
Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:
My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”
the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.
The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch
shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.
The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped
my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.
The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity
in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes
of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath
of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.
All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,
afraid at the start, but about to do something
to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back
of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,
an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger
before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.
The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles
coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed
of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed
by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering
willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,
at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine
in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled
through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal
carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.
For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!
As an obsessive fix-it bee with a minor in thinking other people’s and organization’s problems are my emergencies, I have a hard time figuring out what’s mine and what’s not mine. Take a hot bath when I’m stressed? Mine. Write my young adult kid’s research paper? Absolutely not mine. But then there’s the middle ground where all gets blurry. Yup, it seems reasonable to proof-read one of my kid’s essays or help promote projects for organizations I’m involved in, but when crisis shows its sunburned face, I can easily forget myself.
In the past week, because I was on a mini vacation (when the shit always seems to especially hit the fan), I kept bumping into my overly-inflated sense of responsibility and, even more to the point, false sense of control. I’d answer the phone or open an email, and voila! I was off to the races about how to address the crisis at hand. It didn’t help that some of those nearest and dearest to me were calling in real crisis, asking for advice, which did seem like mine to give. But beyond the advice, those burdens weren’t mine to carry and resolve. Coming home, I ran into more messes that needed clean-up, and the distinct refrains in my mind, “Not mine” and “Step away from the mess.”
Years of being the only one still at work at 1 a.m. to fix a collective hiccup when everyone else is putting their feet up and watching Netflix has taught me something along with recent run-ins with people like me who are far more controlled by this tendency. Such encounters show me the damage of over-responsibility. Burnt-out people tend to be bitter, anxious, and not so pleasant to share enchiladas with. Most of all, I’ve been trained by my body which has a global-sized talent for getting sick when I run myself into the ground. A sinus infection for six weeks? A strange case of vertigo? A foot injury that makes it hard for me to move forward without hobbling? This body can pull the breaks on over-functioning on a dime, and in the long run, I’m grateful.
Yesterday, fed up with my habitually pushed buttons, I took to the garden. Thanks to our friend Jim building us two beautiful raised beds that needed dirt, and dirt that needed to be moved, I had the perfect diversion away from what’s not mine. I shoveled for half an hour in the morning and another half hour in the evening, interspersed with bouts of weeding and raking. There’s nothing like gardening to get clear on just about everything in life, especially all that’s beyond our understanding. Being a full-body experience, especially the shoveling part, it works on me like yoga (which I also did yesterday): it’s hard and encompassing enough that I can’t think about solutions for problems that belong to others.
The more dirt I moved and smoothed, the more I came back to the real work that belongs to me. Covered in dirt, tired and sweating, I walked to the house afterwards at dusk, ready to wash off all that wasn’t mine. Soon, I start planting what’s mine in the process and harvest, waving at the worms along the way, showering off the chiggers looking for a new home, and remembering more of who I am and am not.
This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.
I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.
After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.
Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.
On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.
In my long-time bioregional group, the Kansas Area Watershed Council, we regularly have a water ritual. Standing in a circle around some springtime prairie plants in the middle of a large native prairie, we step forward, one at a time when we feel moved to pour a little water from parts close-by or far-flung onto an emerging milkweed or verbena, and say a prayer or wish, ask for help, give thanks, or just take a breath. I’ve seen people share water from all over the continent and world, sometimes mixing wishes and songs with water from Walden Pond, someone’s kitchen in Kansas City, a stream in central Mexico, and a spring in southwest Kansas.
Yesterday, as I drank the last of the water from my traveling Goddard cup, I realized I had been flying across the country with my own water ritual. This red container had water from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., melted ice cubes from the Skinny Pancake (great crepes) in Burlington, VT as well as what was left from my drink 30,000 feet above western New York. I added more from a water fountain in the Detroit airport, then had a flight attendant while high over Illinois pour in more water, before coming home to Lawrence, KS, where I poured in water from home. The cup traveled half a continent with me, sometimes very high in the atmosphere, and sometimes underground, like in Detroit when I got to cross through a tunnel of singing lights before emerging into the white light that led to another plane.
I find air travel to be somewhat discombobulating. After being high above the earth at 500 mph, I’m always a little here and there, waiting for all of me to arrive and settle in. This time, I just finished my water from many states and altitudes, mindsets and attitudes, grateful for the replenishment along the way. Sometimes there’s a party on your plate or a ritual in your cup. Drink up, the world seems to say, and so I do.
“In 40 years, I’ll take my kids to Amherst, and walk them around with my old friends and their kids like we’re doing today,” Adin said after we did just that in Columbia, MO.
Columbia was where we met in college, or more to the point, because of what we did in our many non-college hours: potlucks with too much carob (what were we thinking?), romantic romps deep in the fields of experimentation, and protests calling for divestment in South Africa by yelling “The People! United! Will never be defeated” until we retired to another carob-warped potluck to sing Holly Near’s “It Could Have Been Me.” There was a lot of loud Rolling Stones or Supertramp music in between analyzing the socio-economic biases in Mary Popins’ “Let Go Fly a Kite,” and passionate debates about anarchism, social democracy, feminism, how we could save the labor movement, and why poetry, drumming, and organic zucchini could redeem the world.
Sometime in the early 1980s, some of us left. I headed west to start as a reporter for a Kansas City labor newspaper before making my way to Lawrence to marry and have a litter of kids, Suzanne went to Vermont to work for Goddard College and raise a good son, and others scattered to Africa or Boulder, Minneapolis or Kingdom City, MO. Our friend John stayed, worked, raised two beautiful sons. Add in 30 years, and here we are – John, Suzanne and me — with some of our offspring, hitting the streets of Columbia to visit and revisit our old romping grounds with the new generation.
We lunched in a place new to some of us, passing around bites of potato knishes and thai ceasar salad. We tore up the stairs to KOPN commnunity radio, the station where all of us oldsters produced various radio shows back in the day (mine was “Saturday’s Child…..Must Work for a Living,” a Democratic Socialist show), and where we could now thrill in how NOTHING had actually changed (except for piles of CDS along with all the thousands of albums). We introduced our kids to the six columns from the old University of Missouri main building, all that was left after an ancient fire, and said to correlate to the number of virgins left on campus.
Mostly, we talked, catching up on old friends and watching our sons talk — all of whom have vivid and cross-pollinating interests in everything from ecological restoration to Buddhism to cultural concepts of the mind to what kind of revolution or evolution it would take to fix our broken politics. The boys, well, actually men, ranging from 18-26, were the same ages we were when we met, danced all night or rode our bikes in the rain. But they generated same kind of spirit, questions, and sparks we did at this age and still do, I hope.
There’s a lot to consider in terms of what actually has changed in 30+ plus years, most notably the climate, and much else that has gone to the big dogs, such as the corporatism we deconstructed over late-night explorations of new herbal tea blends 36 years ago. If anyone in our crowd even mentioned gay marriage, we would have been sure they were on drugs, but then again, reality isn’t always a strong suit for people eating ice cream at 3 a.m. on the lawn of the local V.A. hospital or asleep all day when they should be in classes (okay, so I speak for myself here).
What is real was this day when we got to walk across and wander along the edges of the bridge between generations, springing up in this place where we watched our kids exchange emails and cell phone numbers, promising to continue their conversations in their present or future places. I love the vision of them leading their kids past old bars, new eateries and well-worn paths where they met their oldest friends.
A few days ago while visiting friends in one of my old homes, Columbia, Missouri, I was delighted to see my pal John run into old friends, catching up just the way I might have had I not moved away. But then again, by moving, I landed in another college town where I grew and am still growing roots.
A few days later, while wandering through the Merc to get a crapload of delicacies for friends facing serious medical woo-hah, I ran into Danny, Mike and Walt, some of my oldest and most consistent friends. In the soup aisle, I turned to see Jill, someone I did a project back in the Pleistocene with, called “Midnight Poetry League” — we clumped together groups of teens and had them meet in dark and interesting places to recite their own or others’ poetry to get singles, doubles, even home runs. The night before, while meeting with old friends at Limestone’s ingesting Nirvana-esque vittles, we ran into waves of friends from various sedimentary layers of our lives. Ken even touched based with a guy he went to Kindergarten with before I gave a taste of my pizza to our friend and yoga teacher.
This kind of thing is an everyday deal (or meal) when you stay in one place for a while. Turn a corner, and you might see someone you partied with at college suddenly, after 30 years, woven back into your life. Cross the street and go weight-lifting, and voila! There’s your adult son’s favorite speech teacher from when he was a toddler. Wait in a long line at the post office and find three other people you know from bioregional meetings, the annual January Christmas tree burning party, and the time we had that cross-dressing prom at the old Harmony Hall.
When I was a kid, I craved this kind of continuity, which is why I thrashed around so much during the stretch when our family left the old country in Brooklyn for the spanking new house in the ‘burbs where I didn’t know anybody. True, the kids in P.S. 251, my Brooklyn school, sometimes beat me up, and I didn’t have so many (e.g. any) friends, but I loved the sense of being known by and knowing people and places. While there’s jumbles of canons of literature about the fallacy of romanticizing small town or in-grown community life, especially for those who march to a different set of conga drums — and there’s ample issues with too many people knowing too much about each other’s business — there’s also a sense of homecoming in the expected and surprising familiar.
When I wander Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence, I don’t know who I’ll meet for the first or 3,141st time. I would say it’s like living in an unfolding tapestry, but it’s not always that coherent a design or linear a process. Maybe it’s like tossing a salad of dozens of ingredients and seeing what nuts, seeds and fruit show up on top. Or maybe it’s putting a message in a bottle, then seeing when or if it returns, and what the message means now. Whatever this phenomenon is, it’s a wonder made of time, presence, witnessing each other’s changes up close and from a distance, and stepping again into the fold of a hug or a conversation after a day or a thousand days of being apart.
There’s a simpler way of saying what makes this wonder: staying put. For those of you somewhere for a long time, I hope your roots and branches bring you stunning blossoms and nourishing fruit. For those of you just landed or in the process of landing, I hope you find good ground to plant yourself, and all you need to delight in all the wonders right at hand, right now, as soon as you turn a corner or open a door.
For years a certain squirrel has tormented my cats, strutting his stuff in slow motion from the deck railing while both kitties watched from inside the house The more agitated the cats, the more indulgent the squirrel. He even jumped to the window that separated them, and the cats on the inside window sill and the squirrel on the outside, mocking them in his miniature parade of pride.
If the windows are Cat TV, the squirrel was a daily reality show designed to inflame cat desires and piss them off. As such, it had high ratings: the cats were glued to watching the squirrel who caused them no end of aggravation.
Karma takes many forms, even that of a fat cat. Although we try to keep our cats indoor because of the coyotes in the area, Sidney Iowa Goldberg has a habit of getting out, thanks to Shay the Dog who graciously opening the door for himself and the cat. Having a dog who can open many manner of doors and a cat jonesing to escape the safe bonds of the house is beyond our control, although Sid is pretty overweight and moves so slowly that he’s relatively easy to catch. Either that, or he comes bounding to the door within an hour, having been taught well by the dog that this is how you get back in.
The other day when Sid went on his afternoon walkabout, I didn’t think much of it, and as usual, I was relieved when he raced to the door to come back in. The next morning, just when it was time for the squirrel show to begin (it starts as soon as it’s light out), a curious thing happened. The squirrel returned, but not his tail. Strangely enough, the cats weren’t as interested in the squirrel channel, and they also seemed strangely at peace while Mr. Squirrel walked along the railing with a whole lot less confidence or balance.
While I can’t prove Sidney bit off the squirrel’s tail, it sure seems like a good possibility. In the meantime, the bob-tailed squirrel is struggling with low ratings, but hopefully, still enough fallen bird seed and acorns to get by.
Yesterday, 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.
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.