Although 2020 is already underfoot, this is my first blog post of the year, and it’s the first post that will go out to all of you who are subscribers since sometime in October when my website had some issues. Thanks to my soul brother Ravi’s generous time and ample wisdom, the sight is fully rehabbed, including automatic emails going out to subscribers again. So here’s a poem for the new year (an oldie but still relevant) and links to any posts you may have missed. I wish everyone and our world at large the peace that surpasses understanding and the courage to address what’s most broken in our lives and on our planet.
Prayer for the New Year
Let the blankets hold the shapes of our sleeping
all the dreams long. Let the cat on the dog’s bed
move over enough for the dog. Let the snow,
gathered tight to the afternoon sky, relax its grip
and show us the white contours of the new world.
Let the last one to leave the room close the lights
and the first one to rise make the coffee.
Let the sorrow we carry unfurl enough to reveal
its story’s ending, whether that ending is upon us
or still to come. Let the windows hold the pink gold
of the just-rising sun and the infinite blue darkening
of the rising night. Let the flowers and stones
make their ways to the gravestones of those we love
who left but never left, no matter how tender
the pain of their imprint. Let the flowers and stones
we collect to carry in our pockets and books
remind us of all that cycles its beauty through
the gift of this life. Let the quietest clearing
in prairie or woods, party of one or crowd of crows
land us exactly where we are. Let the rain come
and our unexpected shimmeying and leaping
alone in the living room. As well, let come
the storm warnings with time enough to find
a basement, the silver light of the winter horizon,
the blue light of everyday, whether we can see it
or not. Let us remember that we are not
who we think we are but only and at last
canoes on the river of light and cooling water.
Let us paddle hard when the current switches,
and put down the paddle when the moon’s face
shines before us, below as above. Let us trust
that we will always be led where we need to go.
Previously published in Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies, my book with photographer Stephen Locke
- “In the Last Hours of the Decade“
- “Thinking About the Kaddish and the Life Force“
- “Where Have You Done? Remembering Jerry”
- “What Can You See?“
When I was kid, I fantasized about the year 2000, so far away it was almost unimaginable. Having a birthday in the tail-end of 1959, I thought about how I would be 40 then, so very old, over a decade older than my mother at the time. Now we’re about to tip over the cusp of 2020, I’ve just turned 60, and the unbelievability of time is still a deal for me. Walking across my deck in the cold, bright late light of the afternoon, year, and decade, I was struck by the magic of time travel from the kid I still very much am and what I seem to be now.
But that’s how time is: a human invention although the seasons born of the turning of the earth, the growth of the trees, and the motion of rocks moving slowly across oceans or fields keep their own kind of count. The closest I can come is through the animal nature of this being human thing: my skin has clearly aged, parts of the body shifting upward and mostly downward. Scars and wrinkles, freckles or pimples, veins more apparent in my limbs and hearing less apparent in my ears all say things have indeed changed. Yet I’m happy for each mark and sign that I’m aging, having had more than a glimpse of the alternative.
I’ve wrestled twice with cancer, this past year in my eye and 17 years ago in my breast, and in both situations, I thought of Jacob in the Old Testament, who shows us what it means to keep wrestling with whatever dangerous angel shows up until we can extract a blessing from the encounter. Other brushes with mortality have likely changed me more than the pull of gravity and other weathering of my body. Then again, such encounters are their own pulls of gravity. The fantastical magic of time is best understood in relationship to where we truly are, in a place, in a body, in a community, and mostly in relation to the here and now.
Which brings me around to this moment: the western horizon golds itself up into the darkening blue. The bare branches, finally still after a windy afternoon, hold birds roosting out of sight. The cats sleep on my bed between giving me dirty looks for being a few minutes late in feeding them. All over my time zone and in many others wheeling toward midnight, people are putting on sparkly shirts to go out or fluffy slippers before putting their feet up, a book balanced on their laps. All over the time zones already launched into 2020, people are sipping champagne or coffee or the bitterness of hunger, despair, and pain. All the same, many if not most humans probably have some awareness that it’s a new time, which is actually obviously always true but more clear to us at moments like this.
We travel together, arriving in our own time at what’s next, often not understanding fully how we got here, but knowing that gravity and that beautiful yearning to live and do something of meaning had something to do with it. May we all unpack ourself in the new year with greater kindness, peace, gratitude, and imagination.
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Lately I’ve been thinking about the Kaddish, one of the core prayers in Judaism and more or less a call and response to the life force. It seems especially relevant now at the end of the year and the end of the decade when one stretch of time ends and another begins.
I’ve been Kaddish-prone for a while, but in putting together today’s burial service for Fred Lubin while thinking about his immensely loving family, I’ve re-discovered and learned anew some things about the Kaddish. Here’s what I wrote fro the burial after rooting around various prayerbooks (from the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative traditions) and here and there from the interwebs:
The Kaddish, a word that means “sanctification,” is one of the most beautiful, vital, and mysterious prayers in Judaism. This call to God is so central to Jewish prayers that the sages contended the whole world is sustained through chanting the Kaddish, which was/is believed to have magic power.
This prose-poem is also recited in Aramaic, the spoken tongue of ancient Jews as a way to collectively praise all that is alive and sacred while praying for peace — the peace that surpasses all understanding in our souls and in our world. Besides being a prayer, it’s also a Jewish tradition to call our children our Kaddish, the life that will (hopefully) live on beyond us, which is another dimension of celebration and remembrance.
Although the Kaddish is recited no less than 13 times in a traditional Jewish service, the Mourner’s Kaddish, the same Kaddish prayer, is said during the funeral and burial service of a Jew, then recited each Shabbat (Friday night) for a full year afterwards as well as on the Yahrzeit, the anniversary month of the beloved’s death. This helps remind the mourners that they are not alone and the community that people among them are carrying great love and grief in their hearts.
In reciting the Kaddish, we affirm all that is sacred in this world and invoke the transcendent power of love.
What more can I say except to share the Kaddish, first in Hebrew, then in English. To hear it read aloud, you can go to this video. You can also hear a beautiful piece by Maurice Ravel entitled “Kaddish.”
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.
B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya.
Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal
sh’mei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,
l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,
daamiran b’alma. V’imru: Amen.
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.
Oseh shalom bimromav,
Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,
v’al kol Yisrael. V’imru: Amen.
Now in English:
Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.
Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.
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. To which we say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,to which we say Amen.
May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.
To which we say Amen.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my good friend Jerry, who died on December 13 five years ago. While revising my new collection of poetry, How Time Moves, for publication, I’m struck by how many poems I wrote about this dear friend, but then again, every time I drive down Massachusetts Street, past the apartment where he used to live, my heart still looks for his orange car. Here is one of the poems I’ve written about him.
Where Have You Gone?
Where have you gone, my little friend,
quiet in the corner of the couch, or standing
to hold me, your heart beating through mine?
Where are you hidden or hiding just now,
four months afterwards, three years later?
Are you closer or further or nowhere at all?
Is your absence a chickadee feather
in the paper litter of leaves or a raindrop
dissolving the gravel of the driveway?
Is the weather pleasant, the company entertaining,
the music a polka or waltz played on accordion?
Are you happy and out of pain?
Do you miss us, or is your mind more
like the space framed between cedar spires?
Can you fly, or is the question irrelevant?
How did you go from that hospital bed, old pal?
A leaf detaching, the cork loosening?
A branch bending with no apparent breeze
or weight of bird. A trick of faith
erasing you from our lives?
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“Has your sight come back?” people ask me. I try to find a normal way to answer an increasingly complex question because my sight in my right eye is in flux and over the cusp of legally blind. As many readers know, I’ve been on an ocular melanoma road trip through radiation, surgeries, and surprising bouts of, well, surprise.
The medical answer is “kind of and not really” at once. As the radiation, removed from where it was inserted in my eye, continues its work, the tiny tumor behind my iris melts away. I envision it as an ice burg sloughing off its bulk over time. But what kills the tumor also can diminish my vision. Add in surgery-induced inflammation (hopefully mostly retreated now) and the new formation of a very faint cataract (something I had a 100% of getting after the treatment), and I don’t know how to explain my vision’s return or departure. My right eye has improved, going from 20/1500 to 20/200, but those numbers don’t mean much to me.
What do I see? With just my right eye, I can see the bedroom windows, the curtains pulled to the side, the sheen in the window glass made by the ceiling light’s reflection against the night sky. I can see the cat curled up in a ball on my bed, or is that my brown and white winter hat? I can see color and shapes, depth and layers, the difference between floors and walls, and the way the sky lays itself out in pink swirls on an almost-winter night. I also can see light spilling out from its normal containment in lamps or windshields, bigger and messier than light is to my left eye.
What I can’t see are distinct edges that strictly hold the purple and green quilt as one entity and the off-white wall as another. The dog morphs into the couch. My wedding ring and left hand seem to have always been one vibrant being even if the hand gets more wrinkled and the ring more shiny over time. When the day ends, the water of the pond begins, the fur of the kitty extends, the page of the book bends are just more enmeshed on a seemingly cellular level with the air that composes the space between things.
There’s a Rainer Maria-Rilke passage somewhere about how we teach our children and ourselves to look for the specifics within the open field — the tree, the rabbit, the flower — rather than looking into the open space itself. The mind has a hunger to name and categorize things, to know what’s what and who’s who. Rilke also speaks to how sight changes over time:
“I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to. I have an interior that I never knew of.” ~ Rainer Maria-Rilke
This comes home to me most when I’m moved by something, like last week the moment the Indigo Girls performed my favorite song (“Prince of Darkness”) in concert, and my right eye started crying in joy and homecoming. My left eye rolled its eyebrow, wondering what was up with the right eye, but the right eye was too busy pouring its heart out. That’s what I see, my mostly blind eye opening my heart more deeply to the world.
I stood in the East Village Friday morning, marveling at a Langston Hughes quote I’ve never seen about falling in love with the energy of New York City each time he returned here. The quote was on an electronic kiosk, and while I got my phone out quickly, it wasn’t quick enough, so I waited for it to re-appear. After over 15 minutes, during which time I calculated that each ad, factoid about the Yankees, or weather update, displayed for 12 seconds, I gave up, figuring I could Google it later.
Things tend to happen fast and vibrantly in NYC, and sometimes a flash of truth vanishes without a trace only to surface again at a time beyond our control. Such is one of the charms of the city of my childhood. While I grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, my dad and grandpa had a stamp store in the Nassau and Fulton Street subway arcade, a place I spent hours dreaming of where I’d go and what I’d do while drawing endless pictures of trees, skies, and for some reason, very long snakes wound in crazy patterns. Then I would go above ground and walk.
Which is what I keep doing although the drawing turned to writing (without much mention of snakes but plenty of twisted and wound-up meandering). Walking still takes me above ground, although in Kansas, that’s more metaphorical. In the city, such walking is interspersed with eating (bagels, knishes, Italian pastries, street pizza, and other NYC wonders), and the more I walk, the more I want to walk.
I just got to share all that walking and eating with two long-time friends — Judy, a fellow New-York-to-Kansas transplant, and Denise, a tried and true Kansan who ended up recently moving to California. We wandered extensively through the East Village, often ending up at Veselka (Ukrainian soul food — even if you don’t know what it is, you want it) , sang in the rain while dancing our way to the fabled Veniero’s bakery (greatest Italian bakery on the planet, at least that I know of), subway-ed ourselves to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (oh, the marvelous Shakespeare garden!), and taxied our tired bodies to a great Italian restaurant and a Broadway Show (go see Come From Away!).
Back home, I’m tired after a long travel day, but I’m also vibrantly refreshed, as if a quote to lift up my life flashed across my heart just long enough for me to fall back in love not just with the city but the gift of being able to wander it so freely with such beloved friends.
P.S. Never did find the Langston Hughes quote on Google, but something better happened: we got to tour Google and visit Glen, a wonderful young man we’ve known most of his life.
In the middle of the night, Ken and I learned a whole new wrinkle of what “in sickness and in health” means as well as a new use for leftover Manischewitz Passover wine. As with most things, it began with something very small: a bug, but not just any bug. This one was tiny enough to fit with room for rustling its wings at high speed somewhere in the nether regions of my right ear.
I woke up, then woke Ken up. At first, we thought it was just a tiny moth, but eventually, we concluded it was either a blind moth or some other variety of creepy-crawler because it didn’t try to make its way toward the divine mothership of the flashlight we kept shining in my ear.
Unfortunately, we were experienced at luring moths from ears. A few months ago, we had implemented Operation: Moth-Ear Rescue when a minuscule moth lost its way in the same ear. Ken and Natalie, with a flashlight and tweezers, were able to lure the little moth back to the light of existence and even out the door after several minutes of moth-wing-rattle in my brain that I hoped never to experience again.
This time, we tried all the old tricks but the critter just burrowed in deeper, making me feel like I was losing my mind as rapidly as its fanned its wings. I freaked out. I had myself a little pity part. I got pissed off and cried. Then I took some of the anti-anxiety meds my oncologist had loaded me up with months ago for my eye adventure while Ken and I puzzled over what to do. We tried all manner of ear shaking at many angles of repose as well as squirting in water to see if the bug would swim to his safety and my sanity.
Just as we were about to go to the emergency room, me with one leg in my sweat pants and Ken already in a pair of khakis, he got the idea that we should call the E.R. to see if they had any tips to try at home. Our local hospital referred us to a medical center hotline in the Kansas City area, and within minutes, Ken was asking the woman on the other end of the phone questions like, “Is Kosher wine okay?”
It turns out that an effective trick involves wine or beer. Lucky for us, we always have many years’ supply of that sticky, sweet Manischewitz Passover wine. By the time Ken was using a syringe to aim that wine into my ear, I was singing the Kiddish, the blessing for wine we sing with each of the four glasses during a Passover seder. Yup, Passover is in the spring, and we’re now between the fall High Holidays, but no matter: for good measure, and because one dose of wine only made the bug drunk, we decided to go for four doses, just like during a seder. Sometimes a moment is so ludicrous all a gal can do is lie on her right side, belting out “Baruch Atah Adonai…” at full volume while her husband squirts freezing Kosher wine into her ear. Meanwhile, Ken was reciting, “Why is this night different than other nights?” and pointing out to me that I actually was reclining (what supposedly makes Passover different than ordinary nights).
Did you know you can get a little drunk by having wine squirted deep into your ear repeatedly? Eventually all the wine and singing made the bug give up the ghost. By the time I was in the shower for a long stretch, aiming hot water into my ear to flush it out, I was singing new versions of old Passover songs. “Let My People Go” became “Let My Insect Go.”
By 5 a.m., I was able to put my head back on my pillow, vividly relieved that there was no fluttering in my ear. All day, I’ve been pondering what it means that God or the randomness of the universe put a bug in my ear.
I live down a winding and dipping gravel road, lately wet or puddled in its low parts because of underground springs and an abundantly rainy summer. Coming down this drive today after the long catapult from 4 a.m. in Paradise Valley, Arizona, to my son Forest’s car at the Kansas City airport, homecoming filled my lungs, eyes, and heart as we turned toward this house, supported and supporting this porch where I live. It’s a place of sudden sideways rain when the wind and humidity soar. I live here in this weather: changeable, dramatic, boring, shining, then surprising all in an afternoon.
I’ve always lived in the wind and sky. From my Brooklyn bedroom, upstairs in a narrow triplex somewhere in East Flatbush, I would lean out the window especially during storms, even remnants of hurricanes, just to feel that rush of air and rain on my face. In Arizona, where I had the delight to experience a bit of what they call monsoon season (and what call here an ordinary afternoon), I walked across the retreat center’s rock gardens in the big speed of wind and water until I arrived at a revelation there, for me at least, blossoming jasmine. That’s because I also live in the vivid scent of flowers: lilac, lavender, asiatic lilies, daffodils, hyacinth, wild roses and tumbles of domesticated roses, and particularly my favorite that brings me to my knees because they live close to the ground: lily-of-the-valley.
Like most of us, I live in my senses, and particularly this summer, sound made by the weaving, rising, falling, encompassing, and diminishing songs of cicadas, katydids, tree frogs, birds of many barks and trills. Right now, I lean into the sound of crickets. I live for a great meal when the lettuce from the farmer’s market meets the cucumbers from the garden beside a perfectly roasted sweet potato, grilled corn on the cob, and lemon-mustard-maple chicken. I live in the touch of my husband’s hand on the small of my back and how my daughter melts into me when we hug as well as the feel of the breeze at this moment on my forearms mixing with the air the ceiling fan spirals down. I find life in the vibrant purples of the morning glories and the deep gray-blues of the thunderhead’s edge, especially when the sun shines on or through either.
I live in this moment, then the next one. Yet sometimes a dozen tabs spring open in my mind of what I plan or imagine or what I think happened an hour or decade ago. I live in too much planning and not always enough remembering, a propensity to overly rely on what’s possible rather than what’s likely, and a whole lot of iced water to love sipping along the way. Encompassing so much of my life and work, I also live in writing, where I find my way free from all the biting critters in my mind and angular news inching or powering through the radio or what someones says to me in a parking lot. On the page and screen, I make things, and just doing that makes me feel as alive as I actually am.
I live here, right on the cusp of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when we go from 5779 to 5780 at sunset. On the other side of sunset, I will be sitting, standing, davening, maybe even dancing a little, and afterwards, eating cookies with my tribe here. I will arrive at the start of a new and very old space to live, time and place always meeting at a precise, and if I remember to take in the miracle of life, luminous home. That’s where I live.
It’s 5:47 a.m. when I wake, trying to figure out how to fit my laptop into an antique desk that’s falling apart. My worry about the dream desk starts galloping into many manner of other worry, from the sublime (climate change) to the ridiculous (having to wake early for a gig next February, and what if I didn’t sleep well the night beforehand?). I steer my mind as best I can away from the tar pits of habitual anxieties (“don’t think about the kids, don’t think about the kids, don’t think….”) and thoughts catalyzed by the shock of cancer and trauma of treatment. But still.
Lately, this human has been easily tipped into tiny or not-so-tiny panic attacks, usually in the middle of the night (their breeding time) and sometimes, out of the blue, mid-morning for no apparent reason. Realizing who the little man is behind the curtain is — the after effects of the cancer diagnosis most likely, come out to roost in prime time now that I’m through so much of the recovery — doesn’t help all that much except to remind me that this is a common kind of thing. I work enough with people living with serious illness to recognize how, months after being spit out on the beach from the whale of chemo, surgeries or radiation, the terror catches up with us.
At the same time, as a person prone to anxiety (I come by it honestly given my family and ancestral history), I’m not unfamiliar with my friend, the panic attack. I say “my friend” purposely here because I’ve learned it’s best not to run and hide, call the panic names or otherwise diss it, but get present enough to breathe, name what’s happening, and remind myself of some logic (hey, there’s nothing I can do to reform Mitch McConnell, so let it go). It’s helpful to tell myself that it’s just anxiety talking, and all will be sunnier in the morning. Yes, I have meds to take proactively or as needed, plus this great Gaba (an amino acid that helps calm the brain) supplement to spray into my mouth, and a lot of breathing and relaxation practices. I also know that in the middle of that panic gripping the center of my belly, it’s likely I’ll forget everything I just named here, so I lie in the dark, and aim my thoughts toward remembering how to breathe and what to think.
I’m also far from alone. Friends and family often reply, “me, too!” when I tell them of a recent running of the bulls in my body and mind. Maybe it has something to do with a particularly energetic full moon lately, the reality that we are in the sixth age of extinction (200 species vanishing a day, Greta Thunberg recently said, and yes, she’s right), and so many people and other species experiencing so much avoidable suffering born of oppression, greed, arrogance, and ignorance.
Perhaps it’s also a natural response at times to the reality of being human. When I was talking with Neela Sandal, my integrative physician, last week, he told me an old story from India that included the question, “What is the most amazing thing in the world?” and the answer, “That everyone is dying and no one believes it.” Mortality is a kick in the ass, and it makes sense that given how much we live in a death-denying (and at times defying) culture, that sometimes the space between a sense of control and the reality of life’s fragility and mystery fills with adrenalin.
So for all of us who occasionally experience any size panic attack in any nook and cranny of our lives, it’s good to know that we’re in good and honest company. Sometimes there’s a quick fix, and often there’s not, but there’s always time, turning us from the temporary into the next moment, then the next. Like now when I write this to you on the porch, breathing easy and appreciating the wind, the first leaves falling, and the occasionally monarchs migrating through on their way to somewhere else. I tell myself now and also in the middle of panic to embrace some measure of gratitude: remember all those I love and who love me, remember the sky, remember the river, remember the wind and how it’s always moving and changing.
When life feels out of control, I start counting. I first noticed this habit/neurosis/coping mechanism when I was in labor for my oldest child. I was in too much pain to count the seconds of each contraction, but between them, I couldn’t stop counting. My mind was immersed in a world of ascending numbers, which made me realize I had been counting seconds in quiet moments throughout the pregnancy, maybe as my way to prepare for the Olympic event of birth.
It’s no wonder that many days, especially closest to the eye cancer diagnosis and surgical/radiological treatments and long recovery period, I’ve been counting. I counted (first days and eventually in hours) out how much time passed and would need to pass during those five long days between when the tiny gold bowl of radiation was implanted under my eyeball and when it would come out. Since there, it’s been how many days since the diagnosis, first surgery, and second surgery — a way to measure the immeasurable thunderbolt of initial fear, then the stretch of road unfurling around surprise bends and drops toward healing.
Today it’s 133 days since I heard those dreaded you-have-cancer words. It’s 87 days since the first surgery to initiate Operation Tumor Melt and 82 days since the second surgery to remove the bolster rockers (radiation implant). But just this morning, I found myself counting forward, not backwards: it’s only six days to the three month anniversary of beginning treatment, and by December 14, it will be six months past, by which time I see myself (so to speak) even more healed and healing, especially since the medical treatment takes a while to resolve and dissolve that tumor down to just a wispy scar of itself, inert and of no danger to me.
What I believe in is beyond the reach of numbers, but healing is like that. Eventually the physical reminders and tiny irritations, the prednisone eye drops and dilating eye drops (to blast scar tissue off the lens of my eye) will be as distant as any visceral memory of the pain of contractions. The lessons of all this will come into view over months and years in ways that name or don’t name themselves to me: what it means to be mortal, the power of love, the mystery of healing, and how vast and uncontrollable time is. What I mean by the latter is how much we all get to learn (unless we die quickly and unexpectedly) about how the future is not what it’s cracked up to be or what we get to map out in numbers or letters, although intention, prayer, and contemplation help.
As I move toward seeing myself as generally okay, out of pain and danger, and healthy, I notice I’m not counting as much. Instead, I’m sitting here watching the last few raindrop slough off the gutters and into the flower beds, so overgrown from three months of no weeding that it’s not worth even beginning to find the ground beneath it all. I’m listening to the soft and whirling waves of the crickets as well as to a jazzy version of “Jet Song” from West Side Story. I feeling the subtly moving air on my arms. I’m counting on such arrivals to where I actually am, breath by breath instead of number by number.
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