Grief is Not What We Think It Is: Everyday Magic, Day 958

Finding strings of light

Very little in life is what we think it is, especially grief. In the three weeks since my mother-in-law died, I’ve ridden a pack of panoramic emotions in between sudden bursts of phone calls, crazy-dreamed-nights, bouts of exhaustion no coffee can conquer, plus external the wilds of weather and circumstance. We had a blizzard that knocked out our electricity for 9 hours about a week ago, my son and some other people I love each lost their jobs, and a number of friends have been struggling with illness, grief, and loss. In short, it’s been a time.

While I’ve had experience traversing the giant, naked parking lots of grief — where it’s impossible to remember where I parked my car, why I ordered the wrong thing for breakfast, or how to adult-up in the morning when there are lush blankets and a sleeping cat — landing here again is still a kick in the gut. I pad the hard edges with creature comforts — movies, books, making big soups in the crock pot, more episodes of The Great British Bake-Off, and most helpful of all, talks with Ken and friends. I dye socks and t-shirts as I had planned. I work in fits and starts, seriously consider power-cleaning the bathtub, and then decide it’s too much work.

I don’t have adequate words for where I am although one image keeps coming to mind: a rowboat without oars in the middle of a cold, foggy, overcast lake. This makes particular sense to me since my mother-in-law was such a daily part and anchor of our lives, living almost near door and needing a lot of home care, even if it translated most days for me into simply dropping by for a minute to say hello or picking up one of her many prescriptions. Trying to take my rowboat self into prime time is a little dicey at moments — to paraphrase a line from the film We Bought a Zoo, other people’s happy feels too loud at moment, yet working one-on-one with people or on projects in this computer seems to fit just right. So does watching the flicker bang the side of the cottonwood outside the bedroom window as well as holding the cat while watching an ungodly amount of movie trailers.

For the last three years, when my mother-in-law was on hospice (until they kicked her off for not dying), I alternated between freaking out that she was going to die, being at peace or in pieces over it, thrashing against then completely embracing the weight of our family being caregivers, and many manner of other responses. It seemed impossible her life would end after so many close calls, but what anything seems is sometimes just a dance of our thoughts and thinking.

I remind myself that this is a stretch of time that was always going to be beyond what I could have imagined, but then again, so many things are.  For years, I had feared us losing electricity and being snowed in, but when it happened last week, the house stayed just warm enough, the gas stove still worked enough for me to whip up (by candlelight) a great pork chops and mashed potato dinner, and Ken and I enjoyed blanketing ourselves with throws, good books, and phone calls from old friends. Then, when it seemed like we might have an increasingly cold night ahead, the lights returned, surprising me again. Grief is like that too; I can’t do much, but I can make a big pot of soup, find something to engage in, and keep warm enough until the lights come back.

In the meantime, there is Hanukkah, so I’ll take some comfort in striking a match and lighting a candle in the darkness, a reminder that life is much vaster than what I can imagine, and so is love.

Alice: Praising My Mother-in-Law: Everyday Magic, Day 957

Yesterday, we held the memorial service for my mother-in-law, Alice Elizabeth Wells Lassman (obituary here). After crowd-sourcing some of the details for this poem from her children (including my husband), here’s what I wrote for the woman who was and continues to be so big in my life and heart. I’m deeply grateful for her raising some a wonderful son and being an amazing grandmother to my kids and all my nieces and nephews.

Alice

She was a fierce protector of all she loved,

a passionate holder of babies and truths,

and oil-painting and apple-pie-making devotee,

who fell in love with her driving teacher

and made with him a tumble of generations.

A lover of outside and tolerator of inside, she praised God

in the nuances of cardinals landing and starlings rising,

as well as in this very church, holding her candle high

on Christmas Eve, pouring her voice into the rolling river

of the hymn. She believed in angels and ice cream,

making something out of nothing, and the utter perfection

of each of her grandchildren. She was a mother defender

of the Jayhawks and the moral order, the power of reading

and making her own ketchup from homegrown tomatoes.

A sycamore admirer and petunia lover, she planted

a carnival of impatiences each spring, and because

she didn’t suffer foolish invasives lightly, she crawled

on her hands and knees to clear vinca from lily-of-the-valley.

She was a benevolent ruler of guinea hens,

letting them live out old age in the shade of the elms.

She was a rescuer of baby bunnies, abandoned kittens,

confused dogs, and even a monkey once.

She journeyed to the center and ends of thousands of

Reader’s Digest condensed books, Science News articles,

and Guideposts meditations. A traveler of great cheer

who delighted in Swahili phrases in Kenya, surprise blossoms

in Thailand, and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, she thrilled

with each new landing and returned home scrapbook-bound.

A voter and girl scout leader who believed in the strength of women,

she was a happy and frequent camper, a teacher of self-reliance

who made sure her daughters and son knew how

to whip up hamburger soup, do their own laundry,

and find their way around a library and prairie.

She was sure she knew, and that you had better know too,

the difference between right and wrong, and the price of freedom.

She was a stick-by-your-guns-even-if-you’re-the-only-one

beacon for babies and mothers, justice and hard work,

the essential goodness of humans, and the gift of being alive,

which keeps her heartbeat beating in time with ours

love by love by love by love by love.

Photos: (from top): Alice with her great-grandson Lucas, Alice and Gene with all their kids in the 1960s, Alice celebrating her 95th birthday, Alice and her twin plus her other sisters, Alice and a gaggle of grandkids, all looking cool

Look for the Miriams: Everyday Magic, Day 956

The oneg (reception) afterwards with the delicious food Sue prepared

A few hours after the Tree of Life shooting, we clung to each other — singing, praying, crying — at the Beth Israel Center in Madison, WI. Family members, old and new friends, and synagogue goers — most of them elders, just like the people murdered in Pittsburgh while praying, gathered for a Miriam’s Well reading preceded by a Havdalah service, a 10-minute Saturday evening ritual to close the Sabbath and welcome the new week. But with the pain we carried from the worst anti-semitic attack in U.S. history, the braided Havdalah candle, the only light in the dark sanctuary, took on new, and unfortunately for us (a people targeted throughout history for annihilation) old meaning.

Later that night, my friend Mary Ellen, who was among us, wrote me, “I keep thinking about the Mr. Rogers quote about what can we do when bad things happen to feel better. He said ‘Look for the helpers”’ He might have meant the first responders, but I think it’s for all healers and folks who create. Maybe he should have said ‘Look for the Miriams.'” Given that the shooting happened in Fred Rogers’ neighborhood, this is all the more appropriate.

Miriam — storied in the Torah and ample midrash (interpretations in prose, poetry, and other arts) — leads us singing and dancing in the desert of our times no matter where we wander and for how long. She also carries a stone she can turn into a well to allow the refugee Jews to water their animals and grow food, which in turn, provides sustenance and survival. How this works, as Naomi in my novel tells Miriam, isn’t clear, “But healing is always a mystery, isn’t it?”

I see Miriam as one who feeds her people’s bodies and souls; all around me, I see many Miriams. Our long-time friend Sue not only hosted us and prepared a beautiful spread of desserts from the novel (rugalah, lemon bars, carrot cake and more), but as regularly as most people breathe,  she serves her community, from making food for mourners, to bravely heading off to Shabbat services just minutes after she heard of the shooting. Marty, our administrative director at our local Jewish synagogue, brings great presence, calm, and love to wherever task she does and room she enters. My sister-in-law Karen spends several weekends each month taking care of our mother-in-law, baking her favorite pie with her, making stews and inviting us to come eat too. Kelley sings for people across the country, lending her voice and being to many benefits, embodying one of the songs we co-wrote, “You Gotta Be the Vessel.” My daughter Natalie, who fiercely supports people under attack, whether because they’re of color, trans, or suffering from mental illness, posted this on Facebook after the attacks: “My heart aches with you. But even through my grief, I am HERE for you. May this horrific event unify us as a community and make us stronger!” I could go on for not just inches of text, but yards and even miles about all the Miriams in plain sight.

Sue and me

Our communities themselves can also enact Miriam or Mary or  Lakshmi or other symbol of Tikkun Olam — rebuilding the broken world — through coming together in vigil, action, witnessing, and change-making. Moving forward as a people, a nation, a world requires all of us to find our innate Miriams from whatever our traditions: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, spiritual, religious, or communal. WWJD is one light to follow, and there are many more beings of light, mythic and/or historic, long gone or right here among us.

People have an amazing capacity to come together in song, prayer, and tears, but also, afterwards, in keeping on keeping on. Within minutes of the Havdalah service ending, I started reading from Miriam’s Well, and we began laughing. The heightened moment and this audience’s visceral understanding of Miriam as well as the New York City subway system, the 1965 blackout, and other nuances of history, amplified everyone’s responses. Life calls on us to come together, make something greater than the sum of our seemingly separate selves, and together make our way toward the light: peace, justice, respect, homecoming. Healing may be mysterious, but it rarely happens by accident.

Look for the Miriams, whoever she is to or within you, and make of your life your own braided candle to light and hold high.

Special thanks to Elissa Pollack for arranging this event and to Beth Copelovitch for leading the Havdalah services

Holding Tight To Bliss Road in a Time of Climate Change: Everyday Magic, Day 955

One of the wonders of this world are mountains of maples at the peak of fall foliage, and I was lucky enough to dwell among recently at the Power of Words conference at Goddard College.  The big picture mind-blowing expanses are all around, from a distance golden variegated hazes that upon closer range become crazy quilts of red, rust, orange, yellow, and green. But what really grabbed my heart was the more narrow and up close light in action of the trees and sky, especially when driving up and down curvy and lilting country roads.

The aptly named Bliss Road, near Montpelier, Vermont, is one of those, but so is John Fowler Road, just east of Plainfield, and several other roads that led me up mountain sides and across stretches of brilliance near Marshfield. I followed color and light through dizzying beauty that kept eclipsing itself after days of rain and clouds that showed a more color-saturated side of fall. Heading up one mountain and turning down a long road, supposedly a dead end although I didn’t reach the end of it, I lost the road to the leaves. It was Bliss Road no matter where I went, particularly on paths I walked throughout central Vermont. 

Coming home, I encountered this urgent and heart-breaking update of what many of us knew already but now see in stark contrast: “U.N. Says Climate Genocide is Coming. It’s Worse Than That.” It makes my jaunt through the ancient glories of maple tree nirvana seem like pure escapism, which, to some extent, it was. Also reading the New York Times article “Major Climate Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” brought me back to how endangered they and we are as well as how illuminated everything is.

There’s plenty to do on a personal, local, national, and global scale, and while the articles I cited share some of the big-picture needs and dangers, back home on the small scale, I’m realizing how I can no longer be silent when I encounter climate change deniers, figuring — as I did in the past — that eventually they’ll “get it,” because while they and all of us will, in horrendous ways that multiple human and more-than-human species suffering beyond what many of us imagine, it’s clearly past time to speak out.

My friend Lise on a blissful path at Goddard College

So I’m saying here that if you also love traversing blissful paths or roads — wherever that is for you — and want to keep marveling and moving through this beautiful life; if you love your or others’ kids and grandkids; if you believe in the sanctity of life, then let’s have these hard conversations, draw on real science and deep love of each other and life. Whatever we can do  for the big picture (writing congress people, joining and contributing to groups, supporting initiatives such as carbon taxes and other ways to make sure cooler heads and temps prevails) and for the intimate picture of our daily lives (reducing our carbon footprint, conserving water, diving into the hard dialogues with family or friends who deny what’s happening), we need to do for our endangered and illuminated lives.

Long live Bliss Road, and may we be wise and strong enough to keep walking it.

I’m Heartbroken for Our Country: Everyday Magic, Day 954

Yesterday, a woman spoke with great poise, integrity, and courage about how she was terrified that the supreme court nominee would accidentally kill her when he put his hand over her mouth while sexually assaulting her. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told a room full of career politicians and also our nation and world about the attack and trauma that derailed her life when she was only 16 years old, a moment when two men’s laughter — with all its scorn and privilege — landed in her psyche in a way she could never forget. Recounting how a combination of Kavanaugh being drunk and her wearing a one-piece bathing suit under her clothes was all that saved her from being raped, she spoke of her survival and its cost. This she shared with a room of old white men and some women who were determined, no matter what she said, to confirm Kavanaugh, possibly right now as I’m writing this. “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified,” she told all of us.

I cannot fathom how anyone hearing her testimony and Kavanaugh’s smug and angry testimony (not to mention his tone and demeanor that’s not what any us, despite our political views, want in a supreme court judge) could not be moved, could not think about the women, men, and others they know who have carried the burning weight of similar trauma. I cannot imagine how any senators or representatives from Lindsey Graham to Kansas’ own Pat Roberts can vote to confirm Kavanaugh given what happened yesterday. What must it take to have siloed your own conscience in such a way that you could go the party line at the price of your own humanity?

But I can fathom what it is to carry — as I titled my book about the Holocaust — a needle in the bone — the remnant (that can’t be removed and we make a protective shield around) of being tortured, yes, truly tortured, by another human. I’ve listened to many people share their stories of sexual assault and near misses: a woman whose brother regularly raped her, a man who was date-raped, a friend who just barely made it to her car in time after a date, another who didn’t. I hear my daughter telling me how she’s cat-called almost daily in Minneapolis. I drive by frat houses where I see gaggles of young women tipsy in their high heels heading into a party. I read stories of trans people beaten close to death or murdered. I’ve heard many testimonies of middle-aged men, still ripped apart when they trip in their wounds of being sexually abused decades earlier by their priests.

The soul-stealing damage of sexual assault, whether full-on rape or almost, isn’t the kind of thing that fixes itself with ease like a minor break in young bones. It surely lands on our deepest vulnerability, registering as a threat not just to our bodies but to our lives. Other kinds of trauma born of bullies bullying also can leave life-long wounds to continually mitigate and navigate. As the daughter of a physically abusive father, I have some practice in decades of revisiting the violence done to my young body and soul, and I know that healing is, at best, a spiral path leading to resilience, not a door out of the house of our being where loose boards and broken stairs abide.

It’s a clear walk from what is happening today, this week, this time in our world to the damage that patriarchal power has wrought on women and trans people, and for that matter, men too. The notion that one gender innately has more power than another, and the reality that our culture is set up in many ways to reinforce men, and more precisely, straight white middle- or upper-class men, makes for a difficult, at times impossible, way out. If Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony wasn’t a way into the hearts of those now ignoring her words and presence (some even while believing her), what does this say about who gets to make the rules for whom? A whole lot when it comes to the privilege some claim to cover the mouths and maybe even accidentally (or purposely) suffocate others.

So I’m heartbroken, America. I can’t believe we’re here with so many people poised to put someone on the court who clearly doesn’t see women (and perhaps others) as worthy enough to sit at the table. I’m especially thinking of all of you who have your own needles in the bone activated today, and I wish you all manner of comfort, and ways through to find your strength, tenderness, and peace.

At the same time, I know our outrage and pain isn’t going to go underground or vanish into the winds of political power. I think of a wonderful post Meghan Heriford, the owner of Lawrence’s Ladybird Diner, recently shared about a woman she was talking to after having Meg had the woman’s abusive boyfriend removed from the diner. Meg was concerned that the woman wouldn’t believe she was worthy enough to leave this man, and she reminded us us that standing together, holding those who need support, and saying no to the bullies among us is at the core of our work now.  “Poke a sister and you’re likely to get the whole swarm,” Meg wrote.

My heart is buzzing. Yours too?