The grass of our lawn is so high that I can’t find our push mower, but since it’s likely broken, what’s the use ? Another thunderstorm pushes toward us, and once again, the humidity soars and the wind picks up energy. All night I dreamt of my dying friend after a weekend that includes many varieties of the wild, the woolly and the too-muchness.
This Memorial Day weekend, I wrote and revised an obituary and memorial service after meeting with my friend’s family, organized some of the tools in the basement, shepherded ingredients for a barbecue to my dying mother-in-law’s house and occasionally tried to get her to engage in almost saying “yes” as she becomes increasingly non-verbal, swam in the too-luscious but also too-warm pool waters with my delightful sister-in-law, hauled a bunch of boxes of broken things to the trash, spent inordinate time on the interwebs to find one great b &b in Kansas City for an overnight escape next week, made mashed potatoes, talked to several people about the close ones dying in our lives, watched videos of otters eating cereal, wrote a letter to a student, swam some more, and entertained bouts of “when-will-this-too-muchness-end?” despite the futility of wondering. I almost cried, almost wrote a poem, almost started a mosaic with newly-found old tiles (nothing like cleaning out the basement), almost finished the top of a new quilt, and almost freaked out (or maybe I actually did that).
There are times when everything grows exponentially from the lawn, to the sourdough starter our son is making, to us, but like most growing pains, it can be crazily confusing, uncomfortable, and over-the-top intense in how long it takes to get footing on new ground. It’s also hard to imagine a day of low humidity, clean-cut grass, and the dying loved ones dead and missed, and what it will be like to walk through that next life. I look out the window for a reminder of how much the scenery changes, one seasonal tilt at a time.
For the last three nights, I’ve been accumulating assorted sizes of plastic containers, sorting 1998 holiday letters and tiny tank fireworks, and tracking tornadoes. “Look at what I did with the boxes of paper on our highway fight and our old baby blankets,” I said to Ken. “Look at the radar,” he answered. When it’s dark out and the tornadoes tend to be rain-wrapped, such nights mean a lot of time cozying up with half a dozen weather websites.
It’s been a whirl of excessive humidity, insomnia, drawings of monsters from another planet, long-track tornadoes, and rusted ice cream makers. Because of mice and mildew invading our bevy of cardboard boxes, I’ve been putting my hands on all our stored history — from my labor history term papers from 1980 through Ken’s junior high yearbook onward through our kids’ baby announcements that thrilled us, elementary school music programs based on deep surrealism, and college grade cards that depressed us all. Meanwhile, the heat and humidity drenched me in contemporary sweat, Daniel yelled, “Oh my god!” while following live cam storms, and Ken explained to me that the tornado near Harveysville, if it kept going straight, then died its way north just a bit, could wipe out our home.
In between it all, I work a little, guzzle iced coffee, pack up Ken’s teenage ice skates, and return to Target each day to fill the back of the CRV with more purple, blue and gray giant plastic bins that will find a new life holding letters from dead relatives and hundreds of video games that might be worth something in 2070. There’s something very grand and satisfying about putting the pieces of our old signs and wonders into some kind of order, one bin at a time, clearing the first chakra of the house while the big sky of the world remakes itself in its wildest high wind unfoldings.
It’s past midnight, and I’m sitting in my dark bedroom lit by this computer screen and the moon-brightened clouds moving across the dark windows. I’m thinking about this swirl of death and dying around us all the time, and sometimes, much more so, like this spring. Since mid-March health crises, my mother-in-law, who has been on hospice for months before then, has been fading away. A week ago, I helped officiate a memorial service for my sweet friend and student John, who died at 70 from cancer while writing astonishing poetry about life and death. Meanwhile, our dear friend Charles is transitioning from being lovingly present in a gonzo kind of way (advanced cancer and/or pain meds) to sleeping much of the time. And today I took Forest to see Barry, a delightful man in a fragile comatose state, so Forest could say goodbye after working as a farm hand at Barry and Barb’s place.
It’s a strange time. It’s a beautiful time. I keep the phone close, know certain conversations may be the last (or the last in friend’s or family’s bodily form), and check Facebook, email, and my own gut inklings. I hold Charles’ hand and put my other hand gently on his chest for a minute, look into my mother-in-law’s eyes and bring her a cookie, and think how much I don’t want them to die.
Because dying is such hard work, I sing old Hebrew prayers, Sufi chants, Quaker songs for those around me in fear and pain, slips and pieces of sound that have carried me through many times. While I’m not obsessing over stupid shit to distract myself from this these endings, I sing the songs in my head right before sleep to aim myself toward more of what matters and away from my anxious heart.
Sometimes I handle it gracefully, listening and offering help. Sometimes I’m far more of a basket case than I had imagined, ready to take great insult at tiny mishaps as if my shiny, thick fur of resilience has been shaved off, but then again, I figure that many of us are roaming bundles of nerves at any given time. Sometimes I read books and articles about dying, trying to get a handle on the smooth vessel without a handle, searching for some easy answer in this pressurized time.
At my best, I look at and learn from what’s here: reality is startlingly beautiful and strange. “What do you love best about this life?” I asked Charles recently in a very surrealistic, funny, and joyful interview for the obituary I plan to write for him. “You!” he answered quickly with shining eyes that told me he was so in the moment and so alive in love that he would say this to everyone right now, and he would mean it.
What do I love best about this life right now? I pause, return to the roving moon through the ridges of clouds and trees. “This,” I hear across the horizon of my life, deathwatch or not, all of this tender time when I can put my yearning for solid answers and dates on the shelf and see how even dying is beyond my small ideas about it.
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.
Sometimes the body says, “Stop!” in the most eloquent language it can, a slim intuition that lands sweetly in the center of our attention, and gently redirects us. Other times, particularly with people like me who tend to pack in, pile on, and shoehorn in too much on occasion, the body speaks with far more force and dread. Welcome to my little cycle of illness lately, a not-horrible-not-great cold that turned into an ear infection that triggered two weeks of dizzying vertigo (and driving around with bottles of ginger ale in easy reach) ,then opened into a terrible-you’re-not-leaving-the-house and cold-medicine-hardly-touches this kind of cold. It’s a little like the Rube Goldberg contraption of an illness.
Now that I’m emerging, enough to wander some aisles of Home Depot without lurching for my bed, I’ve been thinking about what’s so good about being sick. As someone with a talent for picking up poetic inspiration, and viruses, I should know already, but when the chips are down, I immediately have to negotiate with the crazy things my mind tells me, which range from “Oh no! The world is ending!” to “This is all your fault.” Luckily, a good bout of illness is a great leveler, and a few days of lying around, mildly hallucinating in between downing wellness capsules and Tylenol usually sets me right again.
Getting sick isn’t what I think it is even if it does necessitate missing a conference and concert. It just is. When I think of the people I work with who have truly serious and chronic illness at Turning Point, I see this up close. Some of us are dealt very difficult hands in this life through no fault of our own: M.S. or metastatic cancer, or Parkinson’s or brain injury. There’s a lot to be said about what’s bad in such cases, but judging oneself for coming down with some rare neurological disorder isn’t helpful or appropriate. While a bad cold is a drop in the ocean compared to such serious illnesses, I remind myself that illness is a perfect time to put judgments on the shelf for a bit. Of course this can go too far at moments (Eating too many cookies? What the hell! I’m sick!), but overall, having the pause button hit on my life is just that: a time to stop, take care, burrow into the blankets, practice slower breathing, and catch up on some old movies.
I know it’s dualistic and limiting thinking to label things good or bad — my friend Stephen often reminds me, “Bad news….good news, good news…..bad news.” We don’t often know what we’re getting into or what it means right off the bat, so along those lines, I would say that having to travel only from bed to chair with a good supplies of tissues and cough drops isn’t a horrible thing. Sure, I felt horrible, but then I remember how time and my bodies are remarkable, shifting from one thing to another with surprising grace even if I’m kicking and screaming all the way.
So what’s so good about getting sick? I grow my compassion a quarter inch more for people who deal with much worse stuff more of the time (“Worse things have happened to nicer people,” my friend Linda remarked the other day). I fall in love a drop more with the purpling clouds, right now, banked over the setting sun. I spend a whole lot more time with my animals, lounging in our small herd on couches or beds. I get to be and be still. And I get to get well.
Quilting is like climbing into a time machine and disembarking in the future with a magic treasure. You start the quilt in one season, end it in another, each step holding its stories, terally for me since I listened to a lot of podcasts of The Moth, This American Life and Radio Lab while sewing these babies together.
I started the bright blue quilt with the crazy quilt squares — controlled chaos is how I see this design glimpsed and phone-photoed from a quilting book — at the end of the summer, thinking this would be a good transition project. I had just finished organizing the Power of Word conference for two years, and with the last of my sons moving out, it was empty-nest heaven, trembling and confusing heaven at times, but nevertheless a time of extra time. I felt like I suddenly gained an extra hour each day. So off to the fabric store I went.
I cut the squares for hours one night while listening to “A Night on the Town” on public radio, then whatever came on after that, and after that. Thanks for my sister-in-law, Karen, who is a superb quilter, I learned how to use that great see-through plastic ruler and fabric cutter (just like a pizza cutter, but smaller with no crusts left behind).
We laid out the squares — Ken helped since I needed his eyes for the best color arrangement — on the floor of the playroom. This was the room where once babies tried to eat Legos, and bringing in piles of sharp pins would have been unthinkable. It was hot out and in, and it took a long time to figure out how to place fabric together in ways that didn’t clash or repeat too much. Then I started sewing, and here’s where the mistakes came in.
A helpful woman in the sewing store enthusiastically handed me a flyer featuring upcoming quilting classes when I told her how inexperienced I was. Sure, I’ve made about five other quilts, but far more simple ones and always without knowing what I was doing. Yet when it comes to learning new crafts, you’ll find me in the corner with a seam ripper, undoing a six-foot-long body of tiny machine stitches, rather than actually going to classes or reading instructions. Some of us learn best by mucking around in the mud, and I got to learn about the muck generated by terrible mathematics errors that meant re-cutting and re-sewing big sections, and lots of time rushing back to the store to get more fabric.
In the end, I delivered the whole enchilada to professional quilter Kris Barlow, who did a gorgeous job turning this big hunk of fabric into a nuanced and three-dimensional piece of beauty.
But while the quilt was with the quilter, I started getting itchy to make another quilt, especially after I spied some stained-glass window quilt designs.
Off to the fabric store again, then out with the ruler and fabric cutter. The problem was that this quilt was, to a person to could only do basic multiplication, more like advanced geometry. I spent far more time than you would expect drawing squares and rectangles and counting out inches for what I would need to cut. Then I realized I forgot to figure in the fabric between all the colorful windows, and since some pieces would be long rectangles alongside shorter squares (each with fabric between them), the addition quickly got beyond me.
In the end, though, I found that quilting seems to be 90% adding and subtracting numbers, and cutting fabric. The sewing part, aside from the bothersome refilling of the bobbins just when I’m on a roll, was a lot like, once the car is packed after weeks of planning, hitting the open road for the much-awaited vacation.
The end of any great sewing project is just a pause in between one kind of weather and another. A trip to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed me in front of a pile of golden and gorgeous crane material, and now there’s a whole pile of fabric to measure and cut. That lure of what different things will look like wedded together by many stitches is irresistible. So I’m climbing inside this springtime-leaving, autumn-bound time machine to see where I land. No doubt I’ll be wearing a new quilt like a super-hero cape, pretending I can fly.
Every year the same calling comes to me (like last year — see here): stop everything I’m doing when the magnolias start opening their huge boat heart, and don’t go back to the workaday world until sometime past lilac season a month later. Yet every year, there’s also the wild build-up in March and full-on everything of April that pulls me many directions at once, this year from far western Kansas to upstate New York. This is largely thanks to the tyranny and blessing of poetry month, and the wonderful opportunities to share, read, write and discover the poetic power of language with many groups in many places. Meanwhile, the world is shaking its swag down every street and along every field.
So one must stop for 20 minutes here or an hour there to walk, look, take photos on one’s iphone, never being able to get enough of looking up trees to see the juxtaposition of sky and blossom. This year, the blossoms seem crazily multiplied and outrageously early, at least by two to four weeks in many cases: magnolias (now largely finished except for north-facing beauties), cherry blossoms, the ornamental barlett pear trees all naturalists love to hate, delicate peach and apple blossoms, forsythia, those springy tulips, and closer to the ground, my sweet but stunted hyacinths.
Some surprise me, like the trio of peace trees (see photo of me holding some of their blooms in my hand) that grew out of the compost pile, sported a few flowers last night, and now are a sweetheart orchard rocking bundles of pinkness. There’s also the white balls of the sweetest smelling blossoms I know coming to life just beside where we park our cars.
Some of the trees, bushes and flowers I visit are old friends, like this magnolia-raining set of trees flanking the side of Central Junior High, annual winner of Caryn’s magnolia proliferation award. Over the years, I’ve eked out routes through various neighborhood to catch beauty after beauty, and each year seems more dazzling than the last, maybe because it is, or maybe because as I age, my heart and senses do too, getting more sensitive and receptive to what life, despite all else, keeps giving us.