Since the inauguration our family has been living out a microcosm of the macrocosm. While the details aren’t mine to tell, let’s just say that we had one of those unjust life incidents in which we discover that, contrary to popular human opinion, there’s sometimes (translation: often to always) no real ground when it comes to what we can count on and control. Macrocosm-wise, this also feels true for many of us who are partaking of the buffet of letter- and email-writing, phone calls, marching, and all manner of resisting unjust policies stinging our hearts, violating our values, and crashing apart our ideals and safeguards.
In such times, I go back to Pema Chodron, particularly her anchoring-to-reality book, When Things Fall Apart, in which she writes,
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
I remember when some close friends of ours were going through major marriage re-evaluation, both of them hurting but shining. They told us, “Then you realize there truly is no ground, and it’s terrifying and exhilarating.” They made it through and have been together for the likes of close to 40 adventurous years, and I’m so grateful to them for their example of courage and clear-seeing at the fall-apart times.
Yup, it’s a panoramic swirl of falling apart and together, and along the way, often all at once, there’s a careening dance of agony, ecstasy, anxiety, heartbreak, hope, amazement, and many moments when we can really feel our beating heart. Sometimes it all comes together at 4 a.m. when one of us wakes up to exhaustion, freak-out, and wonder. Sometimes the calm of trembling cedar trees against overlapping clouds reminds us to breathe. But always, there’s both groundlessness in such times, and the real ground, where we will walk soon, in a hurry to get from house to car on a cold morning, so that we can aim ourselves toward (what else?) love in whatever form shows us why we’re here.
I know the Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness, but it took a while for this truth to catch up with me. As I get older, it overtakes me: intelligence, creativity, initiative, even happiness and many other qualities, without kindness, are hollow at best, dangerous at worse.
While I am stripped and spotted with many flaws, the flaw I’m most ashamed of is when I’m unkind, that is, when I catch such moments. It’s easy enough to see when I lose my temper (mostly catalyzed by stuff with family, or any headline involving he-who-will-not-be-named-but-will-in-inaugrated-soon). But there’s also those micro-aggression moments when I’m dismissive or simply not aware of someone or something, and striving to be kinder means getting realer so I can do less harm in this world.
There’s also the issue of balance and boundaries. Sometimes I struggle with what the kind thing is to do when I’m struggling to take care of myself (an essential foundation for kindness). As an Olympic gold ribbon champion of overfunctioning, trying to decide how to be kind can stop me in my tracks, and often, there’s no clear answer. I breathe, and try to choose wisely, which inevitably leads me toward a hot bath before I leave the house, do the task, make the call…..or not. Being kind to my young adult children has a whole lot to do with doing less for them and conveying how much I know (or desperately hope) they will find their own best answers (although I often trip into offering more than enough advice).
There’s also what I label in my little head as “black hole people” who are so damaged and hurting that they need — or seem to need — every ounce of attention possible. As a former black hole person (hello, early 20s!), I can relate, but I know how being kind entails sustaining ourselves, finding and holding healthy boundaries (confusing since those fences have a way of moving), and in the whole complex enterprise, being kind.
There’s also the very quiet opportunities for kindness as many sages note when encountering someone who can do nothing to benefit you. I’ve failed at this infinite times, yet striving toward kindness means looking at what the moment offers. Do I let the person in a rush get in front of me at the food co-op? Do I listen to someone I hardly know tell me a long story when I’m tired and just want more pita and hummus at the party? Yup, it’s back to boundaries here, but kind ones communicated without an edge in my voice.
Falling out of balance seems to me to be one of the leading causes of jerk-aholism. I’ve noticed for years that with organizations I’m part of, when someone acts seemingly cruel and mean, it’s almost always because that someone is burnt out, exhausted from working without adequate support or recognition, running scared, and/or too isolated to see the ramifications of bad actions. The same is true for me when I’m unkind, and given how life has a habit of throwing more at us than we can deal with at times, it’s inevitable that despite my best intentions, I will screw up again and again. I’ll land on the floor where I’ll need to cultivate a bit more kindness toward myself for failing, then get up again.
Being kind is a state of being: it’s embodied, and we feel it in our bones and organs (just as cruelty can feel like a kick in the stomach). When my heart is wrapping around another’s heartbreak, I carry a visceral sense of sorrow and yearning. It’s not easy. It can be tiring too, but what else are we here for? I think of being at Aaron’s memorial service (see previous post) a few days ago, and how all of us were held together in the active love a community can make when holding together the impossible. We cried at how he died. We laughed at stories of his kamikaze skiing. We hugged on another. It was a kindness to have been there (to have gone, to have been so welcomed): a door open into the ultimate meaning of belonging and purpose. It’s a gift to be part of collective kindness.
And it’s a gift to practice kindness alone and with others, in the light and in the dark, and in the kindly-emerging one-of-a-kind present.
Yesterday was the shining memorial service for Aaron Calovitch, our friend who died earlier this month. Held in Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence, and officiated with great spirit and vitality by Rev. Michael Nelson, the service brought together hundreds of us to share stories (through Aaron’s friends Dave Johnson, Skylar Sterling-Simon, and Mike Doveton, and stepdad Frank Norman), and music (via Aaron’s uncle Gary Frager — with accompaniment by Sue Frager, and Lana Maree Haas). I also shared this poem I finished just a few hours before the service about the Aaron that was and is still one of our own. Here’s also the photo that got me started on the poem, a scene from KAW Council many years ago featuring Aaron and some of his closest pals (Aaron is in the center). Aaron’s gone (at least in this way of being), but our love for him binds us together for many adventures to come.
One of Our Own
He’s one of our own: a golden-limbed boy,
one hand on his hip, the other holding an ornate box turtle,
his open face shining like the lake behind him,
everyone laughing until the camera shuttered,
and he flew back into motion. There he is in a canoe.
There he is running the woodlands balancing two prairies.
There is is, cutting carrots in the kitchen with women his mother’s age.
There he is in our arms, no shame in hugging anyone ever.
He is the boy who watched falcons lift off the naked limbs
of a sycamore while he stood still as fallen leaves.
He is the man who knew his sauces as well as his snakes.
He could track the arc of a great blue heron, swim
the length of the wide pond, and return home with a story.
He is the artist leaning into the refrigerator to find
what’s forgotten, then swirl and saute it into dinner for all.
He is the man mowing his grandparent’s yard before
watching the big game, and he is always laughter
around the fire, in the dark with friends,
or in the living room at Thanksgiving.
He is the blown-over bluestem next to one butterfly milkweed
in the loop-sided circle we made with him in spring
to offer up water, wishes, prayers for prairies and lives.
He flew through hard landings and delicate losses
to go somewhere else. Our present one, our gone beloved,
we love him fiercely as drought loves rain even if
what we knew of his flashing smile didn’t reveal
his flight path across the blue to the golden horizon.
He is a river more than a highway, and wherever he is,
Like many people I know, I’m caught in a panoramic response to the presidential election. One moment, I’m crying, another I’m agonizing over an anti-semite named as chief strategist and a racist touted as the incoming attorney general. I turn away from the news to compose myself and listen instead to the wind, consistent in its variety lately, only to return later to the world outside my windows and hear about a potential Muslim registry and how, according to one Trump advisor, the Japanese internment camps were a good model. Sometimes I go numb between the pulses of despair and bad news over how we can stand with those most threatened, and take care of ourselves and this beautiful and endangered world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the making and keeping “the beloved community” as cornerstone of non-violence. This is challenging enough with people we agree with, yet there is plenty of opportunity lately to showing that love. I’ve witnessed and experience immense tenderness in my community and beyond. The day after the election, at our local food co-op The Merc, I walked up to a friend, and we held each other without talking. People I see on the street or at the bookstore check in with each other. We gather in the shadows to find mutual kinship, strength, and courage.
It’s easy enough to soften our hearts and reach out to those who feel the same way we do, but what King meant by the term “the beloved community” is to build community with those who don’t think and vote the same way we do. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
This work is so expansive, a climb up Mount Everest to where it’s hard to breathe, yet polarization is at the heart of the situation America is in right now. Reality itself is so splintered into all-encompassing separate and even opposite realities on so many issues that it’s as if we don’t occupy the same planet, country, even neighborhoods. As I was standing in line to vote 10 days ago (back in the age of innocence), I thought, “Here we are all together, and I truly don’t understand why some of these people won’t vote the way I’m voting.”
How can we find our ways into civil, respectful dialogues in which we’re actually able to drop our shields and swords? I find this very difficult because there’s so much we need those shields and swords for right now, but on a person-to-person basis, I applaud anything we can do to soften the heart-hardened polarization between us. I think of a friend of mine who called a state representative’s office about Steve Bannon. When the aide said the media was exaggerating Bannon’s history of racism and antisemitism, my friend read him Bannon quotes (the aide said, “Oh, I didn’t know that”), and they ended up having a conversation instead of a confrontation. Will one conversation change anything? Probably not, but dozens might, and multiplied across our country, millions will.
By reaching out to those we disagree with, I’m not in any way saying anyone should accept attacks (some already in process) on Muslims, the LBGTQ community, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Immigrants, Women, Jews, People with Disabilities as the new normal. Everyday, I read about swastikas spray-painted on synagogues, racist slogans hurled out of speeding cars toward people of color, and even a horrible incident in which a bunch of middle-school kids yelled at a Mexican-American kid, “Build the wall.” We need to stand with those targeted, and stand up for civility and peace.
The fact that these things are happening speak to a terrible truth: there’s so much hatred and fear of each right under the surface, even traces of it in the best of us. We have a great many gated communities in America whether they have literate gates or not; so many places that are racially segregated especially. Although I have friends, family, and colleagues of color, I can look around at a lot of places I go and see mostly white people. There’s a lot to learn about why we’re splintered in so many ways, and what splinters we may have to remove from our own ways of seeing.
I think of small rural towns where I give talks on books with Jewish content, often being the first Jew some people there ever met. With a safe space for people to ask questions, I continually encounter a healthy sense of curiosity. I think of how the gay marriage movement gained great momentum quickly because so many people in all walks of life knew someone who was gay, and how, a friend of mine single-handedly changed many people’s attitudes toward lesbians by chatting up her neighbors in a very conservative Kansas town.
This is a wake-up call for us to reach beyond our echo chambers and begin conversations, person by person, and to not to take “liberty and justice for all” part of our Pledge of Allegiance for granted. There’s a lot to do right now to show that we are not accepting such hatred as innate to our government and country, and many are already taking action: calling and writing legislators, donating to advocacy groups, organizing community meetings and events, facilitating development of meaningful actions, and writing, singing, performing, dancing, and others to put forth the vision and real unity we need.
It’s also a time to balance the sometimes impossible work of how to take good care of ourselves as a vital part of this beloved community but still do good in the world. Self-care as well as caring for each other is essential for the long haul, and we’re likely in the duration. Humor, health, breaking bread (gluten-free or otherwise), long walks, deep sleep, rallying around those in grief or crisis, listening deeply, showing up, and reinhabiting our individual bodies as well as our communities all are part of the mosaic we’re making out of the broken shards around us.
When I walk into the voting booth Tuesday and pencil in the bubble for Clinton/Kaine, I have no doubt I’ll be crying in hope for who I’m voting for and relief in who I’m voting against.
I vote for all the girls and women who have been told we look “wrong”: too fat or thin; our breasts are too big, small, high or low; that we smell bad or need to dress more sexy. I vote against all messages that have sparked long-term shame and internalized streams of self-hatred in us. For me, this stretches from my father telling me to lose weight until marriage (then I could “let myself go”) to my maternal grandmother measuring worth in pounds (when one of her friends was dying from cancer, she said, “At least, she got her figure back”). I stand with all of us wounded from messages so pervasive that we constantly breathe them in from family, community, media, stereotypes, fashion and all invisible and visible forces of culture, all of which have told us we’re not enough or too much or would beautiful if only we’d treat ourselves as objects constantly needing costly renovations. I vote for beauty defined as being alive, even, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, the erotic redefined as the vital life force we embody.
I vote against the sexual shamers — the abusers, assaulters, tormentors — from the guys on the street catcalling my daughter as she walks to work, to the weighty and edgy wounds so many of my friends carry from being raped, beaten, betrayed and silenced. I know few women who don’t have a story or many stories of being “grabbed by the pussy” or threatened in some way for denying consent. From the movie theater manager who, when I was 19, cut my hours when I refused to “hang out” with him at the secret (from his wife) apartment he had, to the dads, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and “family friends” who raped so many of my friends, I vote against those who treat others’ bodies as their own private sex toys, who steal souls and some of our ability to trust our own instincts and responses. I vote for candidates who smash the myths that “she was asking for it,” or “locker room talk” is acceptable. My vote as millions others’ votes adds to the dialogue that misogyny — in this first election I can recall where people actually say “misogyny” aloud and in print so regularly — must transform into real and breathing respect for all of us. I want my vote to wrap around survivors and let them know millions of us hold space for their stories, long-term healing, beauty and strength.
I vote for Hillary Clinton, a woman who is also vastly qualified, to occupy the highest office in the land. When I was born in 1959, there were only a smattering of women in congress; today, women comprise 19.4% of Congress (House and Senate combined), which is beyond pitiful. I vote with Geraldine (Jerry) Emmett, 102 years old and born before women had the right to vote. I vote for my mother, Barbara Goldberg, who took us to anti-war marches in the late 1960s, and took herself to women’s marches in later years. I vote for my daughter, sons, nieces and nephews — and their future children — having ample opportunity to speak up and out, facilitate real and lasting positive change, and be fully themselves. I’m voting for millions of girls and women who were called in very cell of their body to lead their communities or country, but found no door to open or window to crawl through. Let all us cross the thresholds we’re meant to cross.
I also vote for all those beyond or outside of tradition gender designations like being straight or being strictly male or female. I wrap my arms around my lesbian, gay, queer, trans and other beyond-traditional-grander friends who, although most now have the right to marry, still face legalized discrimination, harassment and violence, suppression and silencing. I vote in the name of Matthew Shepherd, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, the Saints of Stonewall, Harvey Milk, James Baldwin, Chelsea Manning, Billie Holiday, Laverne Cox, the Trans women of color who “put Stonewall on the map,” (and all those unnamed in this very short list), and the many young people I’ve gotten to know and love who transitioning or thinking of it. May they have a clear path with the love around them.
I vote with every woman, man, queer, and/or trans person who, when they fill out their ballot, will need a tissue or won’t be able to suppress an inner hallelujah.
Caveat #1: By focusing on girls and women, I don’t mean to imply, in any way, that other issues aren’t essential too, particularly the future of moving toward a society that welcomes, respects and integrates people of color, people who live with disabilities or physical distinctions, children and elders, environment and climate,
Caveat #2: My friends, I know we’re diverse in our responses to Hillary, some of us voting for her to prevent a Trump presidency; some us, like me and and Louis C.K. all in on the woman. Some of us will be voting for third party candidates, or writing in Bernie Sanders or Che Guevara (but please, only in you live in states that are foregone conclusions for Trump or Clinton). If you’re voting for Trump, I do have a hard time understanding that, and maybe after the election, we can have a civil discussion to seek greater understanding.
The old ones, and the old gospel hymns talk about going home when we die. For Jews, it’s said that we’re in limbo, not able to truly start mourning, until our beloved is buried. On Friday, when we buried Charles in his cardboard coffin, homecoming and mourning sung through the sun-lit woods and circle of friends and family.
It was one of those Kansas days when any moment of daylight would be heavy with heat and humidity although a 9 a.m. burial was more like a light sauna than what would unfold later. Many of us met at Charles and Khabira’s house a little after 8 a.m. to load the coffin — the lid and sides covered with notes of love and thanksgiving, hearts and mountains, wings and prayers — into the back of a pick-up truck. Then Ken climbed in to sit with Charles’ body for 15-mph drive through far east Lawrence; he later said, “Charles got one last good view of the streets that he had traversed countless times.”
From the sweet air-conditioning of my car, I kept the radio off and sang, “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song” on the drive. It felt like Charles was all around, maybe just a little of him in the passenger seat along with bug spray, a big hat, and copies of the simple burial service we would use. Soon we were there at the edge of the cemetery that morphs into woods, a slim path leading to where Dwight put up an easel with a portrait of Charles, and a big hole in the ground next to an equally-sized pile of dirt. A crowd of friends and cemetery staff wheeled Charles into the forest where we waited.
Clumped together, the 30 or so of us plus two dogs (including Charles’ beloved Rosie), began with “Listen, listen, listen to my heart song,” one of Charles’ favorites, before Ken blessed the four directions. Then as planned with Khabira, I opened up the service for people to share whatever they wished. Some spoke of how welcome Charles made them feel like they belonged to something and someones larger than themselves. Others said if it was wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist in Kansas. One of his granddaughters spoke of him catching her baby at childbirth, and others told of how he married them. Rosie walked toward the grave site and peered in as did one of Charles’ great-grandsons, both curious and present. Some offered up songs; others, prayers. The humidity rose, and our faces shone in sweat, love, and sadness.
Then it was time for the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead said at burial, every Friday night at services for a year, and on the anniversary of the death for years to come to remember this beloved one. With all its “v-yisda…..” words, I’ve come to see this prayer as praise for the life force embodied as the holy, particularly this centerpiece of the prayer, translated into English:
Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort
Our Kaddish was coupled with a toast (featuring Scotch whiskey as Charles would want) as friends and staff lowered the coffin slowly and evenly. T.J. led a second toast, based on a Nigerian tradition, giving some of the whiskey back to the earth or tossing it on the coffin. Meanwhile, a persistent hackberry butterfly kept alighting on Khabira’s hand or sleeve.
There was a Quaker song and of course this Sufi invocation:
Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,
the Only Being;
United with All the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master, the Spirit of Guidance.
Now it was time to fill the grave, and as goes Jewish tradition — and ecological and communal practice — everyone was welcome to shovel or toss in dirt to fill the grave. Singing abounded as streams of sun filtered through the trees. Although the cemetery staff was ready with a small bulldozer, there was no need: most of us took to the task, and four of the guys stayed after everyone else had left to fill the hole and make sure there was even extra dirt on top for when the ground settled.
In the end, there was the beginning: we had brought Charles home, not just by putting his lovingly-decorated cardboard coffin in the ground and filling the hole, but by letting that part of us that is Charles gather itself up and share its song of its grief, sweetness, humor, joy, light, heat, and change. Mostly, we brought Charles home to us, opening the door wider to the heartbreak of him being, in this form at least, beyond reach. At the same time, Charles becomes larger and more precious. May that homecoming continue, gathering more hackberry butterflies to itself over time.
Just now, the wind picked itself up and gusted up to 40 mph after the very still, humid and over-the-top hot day of Charles’ death. No rain, no storm, no big wind expected, but as I write this, in the dark on the porch, the sky flashes all directions in dark purple and curls of lightning, a lone cricket sings his song, and the wind is moving some of the furniture just a little. Thunder rumbles to the west, some young trees go horizontal, and I know this force of nature has a name: Charles.
Charles was one of the first Lawrencians I ever met, in about 1981 when I was a member of the Kansas City Sufi community, where Charles and his wife Khabira would sometimes visit. I was dazzled by Charles’ exuberance about Dances of Universal Peace and, as I learned over the years, most things. It’s an understatement to say he’s one of the most enthusiastic people on the planet, embracing many paths and many communities. Charles was a Jew, a Sufi, a Shaker, a Quaker, a Buddhist, and likely felt kinship with many other spiritual traditions. He dealt in Volkswagen repair, real estate transactions and management, mentoring men, and lots more. A father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was especially excited about his family, and he bowed with his hands together at heart center whenever he saw us as if we were each his favorite human.
Charles died this morning at our local hospital after years of cancer and months of an especially difficult end. I was going to visit him in the afternoon with Ken, but because of a mix-up regarding differing news of his condition, I went over earlier to find Khabira and the lovely hospice people sitting quietly. I plopped myself on the stool next to Charles, and asked how he was doing. “Oh, did you not know?” Khabira asked. When she told me, I burst out crying, shocked that a long-time-coming death could actually come.
Sitting by Charles, I was struck by what I’ve experienced at other deaths, including my father’s: how death seems strangely ordinary. Dying? Not so much, and especially not in Charles’ case after weeks of intense pain, love, holding on, letting go, and the combination of uncertainty, morphine and cancer that spins everything into a vortex. But death, this fresh and close-up, as many remarked over the day, is so surrealistic. How could someone alive be dead when life titters on its meanderings, noise and heat all around us?
The time in the hospital was infused with peace and sadness, forms to fill out, calls to make, and puzzling over what of our collective vehicles was the best way to get Charles from hospital to home where the family was doing its own home-grown funeral direction. We settled on a van even though seats had to be removed, and soon, some of us were carrying Charles into his office, a separate building behind his home. We had a cardboard insta-coffin to fold together after deciding to put the “handle with extreme care” side on the inside so that tomorrow, friends and family can decorate the outside with messages and images of love and goodbye.
In little time, off the cuff and steering by the heart, we made a ceremony of washing the body, moving Charles into the cardboard coffin, and with lots of hard work and engineering (and a pair of scissors), getting him into a beautiful robe he’s worn for many religious occasions. Ken and one of the hospice people lifted his head and shoulders enough for me to wrap his Tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl he had for years and that Jews are customarily buried in, around him. I even wound one of the fringes of the tallis around his finger, a sign of active prayer. Throughout the work of our hands, we sang one of my Charles’ favorite Sufi songs — “Listen, Listen, Listen to My Heart Song,” read some blessings for the body and four directions, burned sage, sprinkled holy water and rose petals on him, and learned how to activate bags of dry ice. The whole thing was simple, spontaneous, necessary and tender.
Now Charles the Storm envelopes us, breaking the heat wave for this moment with cool wind and sweet rain. “I’ve never seen a storm on radar like this one,” Ken says right now as he sits beside me in the dark.
“What is this storm like?” I ask.
“Indescribable. It’s like there’s a mega storm with a huge center, just west of here spinning off all these thunderstorms.”
We look at radar, and see a wheel of weather, sending change many directions at once. Not an ordinary storm but a force of nature, like Charles: original, life-giving, exuberant, and full of magic. All around, there’s lightning bugs and lightning, wave and particle, a big fireworks display across the clouds in the shapes of fast-moving rivers or tree branchings, and in the fields, thousands of small lanterns blinking on and off like heartbeats. Dance in peace, dear friend.
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!
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.
Last night I dreamed I was a stand-up comic doing my first gig. There was mic trouble, and as I tried to riff off a list of topics I had scrawled on a wrinkled piece of paper, people wound around me, trying to get the mic to work. Most of the audience, dazzled by the previous act and impatient with our technical troubles, were leaving in droves while I tried to come up with something funny from my notes. Very quickly, I realized two things: it’s all in the timing, and it’s best to simply take the leap and leave my notes behind.
So I started talking about how people will surprise you, the examples pouring down on my pillow. I remembered how my father held on in a coma for 10 days until I arrived, and to my still astonished surprise, died 15 minutes after I walked in the door, my hand on his knee as his pulse ebbed away. I thought of a friend, with whom I was so estranged after years of tangles, that I was sure was gone forever. One night, after I dreamed of our reconciliation, I emailed her to find out that she had the same dream, and even more miraculous, we not only reconciled but found friendship on higher ground. My children, my siblings, my friends and community, and especially my husband frequently surprise me, acting in ways I couldn’t have scripted. I’ve received boatloads of delightful surprises, blessings all: flowers, apologies, requests, great stories, hot meals, bouts of laughter, weather-induced adventures, and cold drinks.
People can also surprise you in bad-to-worse ways. Someone recently lied to me, sparking my outreach. A sullen teenager I knew ended up taking his own life, breaking our hearts. Our world is peppered with betrayals, broken promises, sins of omission, and sly deals for the greedy.
Yet as my friend Shelley once told me — after adopting one baby to, a year later, receive the message, “Do you want the brother?” — life has more imagination than we do. So we’re in for a lot of surprises. What we find in books and movies — the magical endings or new beginnings — may thrill or satisfy us, but surprises are even sweeter off the page and screen because they’re happening to us: the new love, the old pal returned, the book or record deal, the first green of the lettuce after the frost we thought killed it, the last sweet potato dug up in late November, the sudden sun shower, the resolved fight, the new kitten, the drought or flood years, the way just a little hammering can repair a falling-down porch, the first mosquito of spring, the shimmer of lilac a month early, and the snowy owl on the power line.
My dream ended with this line: Enjoy the show, and when it’s over, see what’s next. We’re all tuned into the surprise channel, and you don’t have to be a stand-up comic with technical issues in an empty room to see the folly, beauty, and sweetness of that.