Your Heart Song: A Poem for Charles Gruber: Everyday Magic, Day 871

IMG_0873Lately I’ve been thinking of my friend Charles Gruber, who died June 15 but left behind an abundance of affection, laughter, stories, and beloveds. So I wanted to share this poem I wrote for him and read at his memorial service after a spring and summer of being lucky enough to be among those close to him at the end of his beautiful life. The title refers to Charles’ favorite Sufi song, “Listen, listen, Listen to My Heart Song,” a chant by Paramahansa Yogananda.

Your Heart Song

for Charles

Listen, listen, listen: how could I ever forget

you with your shining brown eyes, raising your eyebrows

when you bow, hands together at the center of your chest

whenever we meet in an East Lawrence alleyway

or before the glowing dessert case at Wheatfields?

Listen to the lilt of the wind, the hard-won laughter

that comes in the middle of a May afternoon,

when I ask you what dying is like, and we sing

“This Little Light of Mine.” I ask what it means to be

a father, and you sing, “Tickle me once, tickle me twice.”

“Is that what fathering is?”

“How could it be anything but?” you answer.

Listen to Rosie snoring along your side as you try

to catch the words that used to rush through

the river of what you knew, now hidden

in the reeds or thinned to oblivion.

Listen to the stories you tell of Paris hipster lesbians

or Volkswagens with bad mojo, houses no one

or everyone wanted, and mostly, the great loves of your life:

wife, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.

So we listen, wait and listen, and if you fall asleep or forget,

Khabira plays Willie Nelson, the phone rings,

and someone leaves a cherry pie at the front door.

The thunderstorms tell of your enthusiasm for all

that gathers us in a circle and makes us sing,

look into each other’s eyes, and remember.

Listen, listen, listen: your heart song

Emptynesting 2.0: Everyday Magic, Day 870

There’s no socks scattered on the living room floor or in between the sofa’s cushions. I open the refrigerator and can actually see my food, and the cream cheese I bought yesterday is still there. When I clean our kitchen counter, it doesn’t fill up within a day with papers, plates, my son’s computer, assorted cups and someone’s t-shirt. The washing machine is enjoying a relative vacation, as is the dishwasher. Yup, it’s emptynesting 2.0, second verse same as the first from a year ago.

Within the last week, both our sons moved out, one to Madison, WI, and the other five miles into town to a K.U. scholarship hall. Last year at this time, I was reeling in waves of grief, relief, and worry. This time, I have my feet up and have seen three movies in the last four days. A year ago, I fretted over my sons leaving, especially Forest, who had never not lived with us, and despite his insisting I didn’t need to, I just had to unpack all his clothes for him in his new room. This year, I told him I couldn’t help him move because I had a massage, so he should take his car and do it himself.

At the Power of Words conference in Maine held Aug. 12-14, a few days before the second exodus of sons began, a friend reminded me that a year before, in a storytelling and grief workshop, I told her how I said I was an animal losing part of its animal self. “I felt that way?” I asked her, amazed what a year could do. True, I’m sad to not have the guys here despite them ruining my kitchen, waking me up with loud videos and louder laughter at 2 a.m., and dipping clothes, paper and dirty dishes everywhere. But it feels more like the natural order of things although the natural is a lot of ricochet: they leave, they come back, they leave again. We arrive in the new normal, we regress, we progress again, all the time circling that old journey of our bones that leads us far and back home again.

Yesterday I re-watched one of my favorite documentaries, Buck, about Buck Brannaman, who teaches people all over the country about how to work, live, and thrive with their horses. He shows how to use respect, gentleness, and our energy with loving intent to avoid any sense of forcing or breaking horses. For years, I felt like I was learning the same with my kids although I surely failed a thousand times, then began again a thousand times. I’m not saying my kids are like my horses that need to be trained to haul me around, but being a parent is so much about teaching your kids how to connect deeply with their horses — their lives —  so they can launch into that beautiful dance between who they are and how they live. Actually, it’s probably the reverse, and our kids are the ones training us. In any case, happy trails to us all until we meet again.

 

Right Before the Storm: Everyday Magic, Day 869

The sky is steely blue and getting steelier as the silver-gray of the coming storm flushes the expanse from horizon on up. The hummingbirds are strangely quiet as they balance-dip their beaks into the feeder. The wind is almost still on one side of the Osage orange tree, and ruffling itself to distraction on the other side. The car windshields are a bit wary, having heard the predictions for 60 mph winds and penny-size hail.

It’s been a while since a big storm came my way, mostly because I was out of the way in Vermont and Maine where, beautiful as it was, summer weather is tamer. Not quite enough heat or space, particularly that big spread of land between here and the Rockies where a line of storms can pick up a lot of energy and speed. The radio tells us what exits of the interstate are affected as well as the long list of counties.

Although the storms may not get here for two or more hours, we all know it’s coming, the gravel driveway, the hungry flowerpots, and me. As the temperatures drop and winds pick up, we exhale, happy to be here.

Ocean View to Porch View: Everyday Magic, Day 868

Yesterday morning, I walked acrosIMG_1758s the narrow beach into the ocean, dipping my toes into the cold Maine waters until, scared and hesitant, I dropped in and swam like crazy to warm up until the sea carried me with ease.

This morning, I walked to my front porch, put my feet up, and stared into the Osage Orange tree and other things in my view, like my car that got strangely covered with bird poop while I was away. I let the chartreuse padded rocker (found years ago in a small-town Kansas thrift store) carry me into quiet.

In between, there were airports, a very strong cup of iced coffee, a narrow plane seat 30,000 feet off the earth with a view of the Jersey island (Long Beach Island) where I fretted as a teen, and IMG_1813surrealist naps between the captain’s garbled announcements. There was the ride to the Portland Jetway with an old friend/ Goddard student who shared the moving, drastic, and ultimate healing story of losing his home to a fire. There was a lobster roll and very salty potato chips at one airport, and a Philly pretzel at the other. There was the baggage carousel with finally Jerry’s suitcase to grab, the luggage left to me by my dearly-departed friend who still travels with me. There was Ken late at night and the beautiful and car-fumed air of the home airport, then the ride where as usual, I alternated between talking at high speed and staring into the blur of familiar highway sites. Then there was the house waiting for me, complete with cat vomit in the entry way, a very happy dog, my beautiful sons, a clean kitchen counter, and a whole lot of mail.

Balanced precariously on the ledge of these merging views, I recover from close to two weeks away and all the beauty and exhaustion that filled that time. I run to the garden in the morning in my nightgown to graze on tomatoes and consider what to plant for a fall garden. I nap deeply for hours, then find out it was just 10 minutes. I plant a big dinner while watching the many hummingbirds from this porch, then decide yogurt and fruit is best.

The view behind, the view ahead, and the view now hangs mysteriously together when I see a fast orange butterfly reminding me that just yesterday how a bunch of us in the ocean pointed up and laughed when we saw a black butterfly. Motion links us.

A Young Woman in the Land of Yoga: Everyday Magic, Day 867

13268489_1102129356513548_3281435603494530995_oThis weekend, my daughter Natalie will graduate from her yoga teaching training at Your Yoga in Minneapolis, a fine yoga center and school, six years after she first fell for yoga. When I visited with her in June, I found this post I wrote for a non-defunct yoga magazine, and in honor of her upcoming graduation, I share her first immersion into the land of yoga:

A Teenager In The Land of Yoga: 2011

Within the last year, my 18-year-old daughter—who I’d been inviting to come to yoga class with me for years—finally said yes. With a little trepidation for how much she might later make fun of chanting “Hare Krishna” or doing some intensive Pranayama, I drove us to Gopi’s yoga studio in the country where, surrounded by oxen, peacocks and kittens, I somewhat-regularly attend Monday night yoga class. We kicked off our shoes, walked upstairs to the yoga studio and set up mats and blankets.

Living with a pact of teenagers and young adults, I’m so attuned to life in the den of sarcasm that it’s hard to me to imagine reactions from my children that don’t include rolling of the eyes and shaking of the head along with that tell-tail sigh that leads into “Ma….om,” said in two syllables to emphasize how little I know. Which is true, but you don’t want to let onto a bunch of teens that the older you get, the less you actually know about anything anymore, so what little illusion of authority you think you have will be altogether blasted away. Given this, I had to wonder how Natalie would react, especially given the long stretch of chanting in the beginning, how Gopi led us in massaging our own feet, the long and deep forays into sun salutation, the quiet exploration of a mudra with our fingers doing their little gymnastics, and the instructions to imagine the lotus at the center of 13734949_1133197786740038_5973846212292012342_oour hearts, “ever fragrant, ever fresh.” I could see the flatulence jokes on the hoof.

After the 90-minute class, ending with a long corpse pose, we sat up, said “Namaste,” visited a little, and then headed downstairs to shoes, kittens outside longing for affection, and the car. “What did you think?” I asked Natalie as she fastened her seat belt.

“Those kittens are so cute.”

“Yeah, they are, but what did you think about the yoga?”

“I loved it.”

“All of it? Even the chanting and massage?”

“I loved everything about it. It’s the most relaxed I’ve been in months. I’m going to rearrange my work schedule so I can go with you every Monday night.”

Since then, she’s gone off to college, but whenever she’s back home, one of the first questions is when Gopi is teaching the next yoga class. Although she’s not so interested in doing yoga with me at our house, she’s now taking back to college with us an armful of yoga DVDs and a list of local classes to check out. Turns out that sometimes you can lead a horse to water and get her to drink….or in the case of my daughter, lead a teenager—who would otherwise be watching music videos, chatting on Facebook or making a pizza—to yoga where she can and will come home to herself.

13407042_10156953346325484_1123772047341389744_nAround the time I wrote this, I was dipping my toes in, then leaping into the refreshing vistas  of asanas, yamas, niyamas, and other parts of yoga Eight-Fold Path. Six years later, Natalie is wandering that land in everything from crow to corpse post. In between, she’s been sharing her growing love for yoga with others through seeking the clearest words and gestures to teach yoga in the right curve of each moment, both in her yoga teacher training, and in the classes she leads in her living room.

When I first fell in love with yoga, I was in for one of the biggest surprises of my life. Over the years since cancer and some gut calling sent me to the mat, I’ve continued to fall in love all over again with yoga, breath by firey breath, and stretch by heart-opening stretch. Seeing how much yoga gives this young woman, and how much she’s giving others already with her whole being, my wonder is multiplied by joy and contentment. Congratulations, Natalie, and may you continue to walk, sit, stand, and reach in the land of yoga.

Insomnia with Stars, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning Bugs: Everyday Magic, Day 866

There’s something to said for seeing in the dark especially when the first rain in weeks makes both a dramatic and gentle entrance, adorned with lightning bugs filling the fields, stars to the south, and lightning flashes turning on and off the vista of clouds.

There’s something also to be said for listening closely when thunder echoes within echoes, opening up caves within caves of the sky, the wind barely trips leaf against leaf, and filling it all are thousands of tiny pings of rain.

It’s a still life for the senses, only instead of a canvas, it’s life being life in this place at this moment. A crooked bolt shines on down before vanishing. The car hoods glow metallic every few moments. Inside, the dog stands up very concerned, then lies back down. Outside, the tomato plants out back and hostas out front drink it all in, me too sitting on the porch, awake when I should be asleep.

Sometimes life rocks us into its beautiful cradle, and eventually, I hope, toward refreshing sleep. But for now, this is enough.

Becoming a Parent Is Not What You Think: Everyday Magic, Day 865

Daniel with his grandmothers
Daniel with his grandmothers

27 years ago today, I was in labor at the with my first child at Topeka’s Birth and Women’s Health Center. It was wicked hot. The waves of contractions had been knocking me down for many hours since my water broke at Liberty Hall in the middle of a nightmare-ish film about the Bubonic Plague. A lot was going out the window quickly, foremost the plans I had about how childbirth would be a challenge I could manage, the birth would be quick, and the baby would be born healthy.

27 years ago tomorrow, I was in a nearby hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, my fabulous midwife and doctor from the birth center having recommended this and now wrapping their arms around our family along with other great supporters. Our newborn, Daniel — who tends to not take the easy route in life for most things — inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out and was born unresponsive to things like breathing on his own quickly enough. Ken and I were standing by his incubator, our hands through the openings so he could hold our fingers with his small fists. He was full-term, strong and relatively healthy, but we wouldn’t get to bring him home until July 14, Bastille Day. As it turned out, it was the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, and public radio played many renditions of the Marseillaise (click here for musical accompaniment to this post). The whole day, we kept telling him, “You’re free!”

He was free, and we were beginning our long fall and rise to freedom from whatever we thought becoming a parent was, a lifelong unfolding of how deep, hard, rewarding, joyful and heartbreaking love is, and how little control we have over just about anything but watering the garden, doing the dishes, and making a strong cup of tea.

998133_10151975373082684_1011344908_nNow that we have three 20-something children, the surprises continue, sometimes picking up speed, and sometimes lulling us into the notion that humans have real ground their feet. I mean, we do have the real ground of the earth, but when it comes to thinking we always know best where to step next, not so much. Becoming a mom has immersed me in a kaleidoscope of intensives, from learning about various physical ailments from epilepsy to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, to studying the nuances of SAT applications, healing modalities off the beaten path, car insurance policies, best inexpensive motels without bedbugs and with pools, and IEPs (Individual Educational Plans). We’ve tutored our kids (and ourselves) on how to balance a checkbook, what not to say to your boss, where to find the best yard sales, how to facilitate a meeting, and why great movies, kickass enchiladas, and dark chocolate matter, especially when the chips are down and the stress is up.

We’ve collected irreplaceable stories together, like what could go wrong after driving in mountains for seven hours, then eating too much before getting into a flimsy tent during a thunderstorm. We’ve driven, flown and taken the train all over the country to see relatives, attend funerals or weddings, and try to relax at the Grand Canyon or in the Rockies when our kids would rather fight over the remote control for the hotel room TV. We’ve also had thousands of long talks, including a good many Jewish versions of “come to Jesus” talks (as they call them in the Midwest) about grades, honesty, chores, habits, crushes, friendship, and the screwed up world we’re leaving to them, broken with ecological devastation, racist killings, war-torn countries driving immigrants to risk dying on flimsy rafts, and widespread trauma. p328116755-4

It’s exhausting and overwhelming, glorious and dismal at times. There’s no end to this job as my friends with kids in their 40s and 50s remind me. There’s no end to the piercing hope and desperate prayers for each child to find his or her own best way. Luckily, there’s no end to the love, and the capacity I didn’t know I had to begin again, especially when it comes to edging out another inch of forgiveness for all of us.

So on this birthday of starting my climb, fall, and long walk through a great many parenting parking lots and prairies, I want to celebrate freedom, folly, and wish my oldest son a sweet birthday. Nope, being a parent is not what I thought it would be. It’s vaster and better and, like this day that turned from cold thunderstorms to hot clear skies, always in motion.

A Bedroom Full of Fireflies: Everyday Magic, Day 864

There they were for the last two nights: a dozen or more fireflies stitching their green light across the bedroom, rising toward the danger of the ceiling fan, spinning out in iridescence before gaining enough traction in the air to fly right again, or simply landing on top of our blankets or in my open purse.

“How did they get here? Is there a door open?” Ken asked on Sunday night, propelling me to walk the dark house where all the doors and windows were closed, but lightning bugs hovered over the living room couch and the bathtub. When we looked out the window, we saw thousands of their kin, lifting and lighting over the cucumbers, ornamenting the back deck, and rushing around their mosh pit of the field. It’s a banner year for fireflies, and we could only guess that they moseyed on in without noticing they were leaving behind the larger atmosphere for the smaller one.

We talked about airlifting them to the safety of the fields, but it’s hard to catch and carry a firefly without injuring him or her, and besides, the light show was too entertaining. Although Ken unfortunately rolled over on one, for the most part, they seemed to be doing what fireflies do: call out to each other with light and speed, and wait for the return call. They also did things I never imagined, like four of them lining up precisely from the floor IMG_1172beginning at the end of our bed down the short hall to the beginning of the bathroom. “It’s a landing strip to direct me to the bathroom,” I told Ken.

Last night we shut the lights to find them still turning on and off, winking at the fireflies on the other side of the window, and still grappling with the forces of good and evil emanating from the ceiling fan. Today, the Zen calendar spoke to their light. Tonight we hope the fireflies will return to speak to each other while we snore and dream.

Bringing Charles Home: Everyday Magic, Day 863

IMG_1091The 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.”IMG_1093

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 IMG_1101as 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

IMG_1107Our 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,

IMG_1111 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.

The family will be announcing the date for a celebration of Charles’ life soon, likely to be held later in July. Please consider contributing to the family’s fundraiser here to help with extra expenses and massive lost of income: https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/49gok7.

Charles Is A Force of Nature: Everyday Magic, Day 862

IMG_0873Just 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?

IMG_0875The 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.

UntitledNow 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.