The World is On Fire: Everyday Magic, Day 983

I sit on the morning porch, the hedge apples across from me growing into softball-sized green brains, soon to be heavy enough that we’ll need to avoid parking our cars under them. The birds to the west chirp, interrupting the steady buzz of cicadas and crickets to the east. All is apparently as peaceful as the cat asleep on the chair beside me, but of course, this is just one moment in a world on fire.

For the last three weeks, the Amazon burns, and just today, according to The New York Times, more than 500 Brazilian government employees signed a letter of warning that the country’s environmental protections could easily collapse. The leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro and others has fanned the flames of land-grabbing to the extent that over 27,400 fires are burning right now. While the reality about Amazon fires is far more complicated that news bites about the lungs of the world burning (see this recent article in Forbes for more), the undeniable reality, seen from space even, shows the massive expanse of the fires. Political fires between the G7 and the Brazilian president burn their own through-lines without any clarity of what can be done and if it can done soon enough.

Meanwhile, humongous fires burning for over three months in Siberia, a result of climate change, send “a cloud of soot and ash as large as the countries that make up the entire European Union” through the northern reaches of Russia, according to the BBC. Thousands of migrant children, separated from their parents and imprisoned in detention centers, are suffering not just the immediate loss of a sense of safety and nurturance but developing long-term traumatic effects that may well greatly diminish their potential and well-being. The politics of polarity seems to gather strength, just as Tropical Storm Dorian — predicted to be a powerful hurricane soon — pitting us against each other a thousand ways each day.

The world is on fire in ways that seem to be and may well be worse than ever before — especially with the speedy unfolding of climate changes already impacting our planet and threatening to turn forests into deserts and nations into wastelands — yet it’s also true that the world is always on fire. I was thinking of how my friend Judy, a Zen master and fellow lover of the perfect bagel, once told me this over 30 years ago, so I searched for the origin of this reality and found the Ādittapariyāya Sutta: The Fire Sermon, given by Buddha to 1,000 monks. Part of it reads:

Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

This makes sense to me, and yet, and yet, and yet: how do I reconcile the real fires — the deep and abiding suffering happening right now to children in detention facilities or in the Amazon to countless animals (including humans) and plants, and the roots of this suffering growing exponentially to all our detriment — with the eternal fire of being alive without getting numbly complacent (or worse, complacently cynical) or hopeless (or worse, hopelessly immobilized, kind of a trap for those of us who are privileged enough to not be in the fire at the moment)?

I don’t know. I only know how to sit here at this moment, take in the volume of cicadas, growing louder as the heat rises, and feel such heartbreak and gratitude for this world.

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Blown Away: Everyday Magic, Day 968

The week began with news that blew me away: a beloved colleague, who was the rock and heart of the college where I work, died suddenly. Then the wind picked up to the tune of 50-plus mph gusts that shook the house around my shaken heart.

The wind, part of a weather system called a bombogenesis, was so strong that I had to postpone a classroom visiting and reading in Hutchinson, Kansas, 200 miles from here, because it was too risky to drive without being blown off the road or into oncoming traffic. The grief my college community feels is so strong that it’s hard for many of us to stay on the road of whatever task we’re following, and we share our pain as well as love for our colleague through phone calls and emails.

There are times in life when we’re blown-away: blasted out of our usual ways of being or thinking, maybe even out of our minds too.  It’s hard to sleep, think, remember to turn off the stove or step outside into the wild yet grounding presence of the world. It’s scary and edgy, strange and familiar, and altogether a moment that shines and blares how vulnerable we are, how precious our lives, and how fast things can change.

Yet I also recognize that at such times, I’ve blown right into the center of my heart, however flawed and confused it is. There’s nothing like being blown away to make me stop in my tracks, see that they are somewhat arbitrary tracks to begin with, and reconnect with what matters: being kind, loving, and empathetic. Staying as safe as possible and off the roads to potential danger when the big winds come. Taking care of myself and others as best I can. Catching up on sleep, the dishes, and remembering to feed the birds.

Today the sun shines brightly and the wind is below 20 mph. But elsewhere in the world, people are being blown away by the mass shooting hate crime in New Zealand and the fast-moving floods swallowing whole towns in Nebraska.  Bombogeneses usually happen over the ocean, intensifying hurricanes, but they’ve proven they can happen over the land, and when it comes to human behavior, a sudden intensifying of damage and loss can also drop to new lows.

In the aftermath of such wild weather, we can recognize why why we’re alive, which I think always has to do with showing up, even with a trembling heart, for ourselves and each other especially when we’re most blown away.

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

Loving Uncle Ron: Everyday Magic, Day 914

Another visit, another time to sort tools

It started with gerunds, a grammatical term for verbs that end in “ing.” To write directly and precisely, writers are supposed to avoid gerunds, Uncle Ron read in a tiny newspaper article that he clipped and sent to me.  He wrote me that when next we met, we needed to get to the bottom of this gerund business.

That was well over 30 years ago, and get to the bottom we did, along with picking up what we found at the bottom and tossing it back and forth over decades. The first time we talked about this in about 1985, I told Ron that some feminist scholars purposely used a lot of gerunds to reclaim the language shaped into sharp directives by men.  He thought that made sense, but mostly he questioned why people were supposed to write in as few syllables as possible; after all, what’s wrong with a little extra i-n-g-ing as you go? That may have made particular sense to Ron because he loved words, and loved to immerse himself in many of them for hours on end, talking until the cows came home and went out again the next morning.

But he did a whole lot more than talk. A former engineer who became a minister, marrying his beloved Wilma early in the process, and having four daughters (all who ended up with the initials JJJ), Ron liked to do things and get things done. Two or more times each year, he and Wilma would come stay with Ken’s folks (Ken’s mom is Wilma’s sister) on the farm to help out for weeks. Each day, Ken’s dad Gene  would go out with Ron to fix fences, clean out the eternally-refilling basement or barn,organize tools, or haul leaves and stack wood. Ron could seemingly build or fix just about anything, and he brought a lot of cheer to any job as well as a problem-solving spirit only an engineer-minister could mix together in the right potion.

Hauling Forest Around Too

Because Ron and Wilma were here so much, they became more like a second set of parents to us. This was somewhat formalized when we told the nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — the day after our first son Daniel was born — that Ron and Wilma were my parents because otherwise, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the unit to calm us and the baby. Although Daniel was born at a nearby free-standing birthing center, because he inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out, he was slow to breathe on his own, and that week in NICU was treacherous for him and us. Having an extra set of very loving surrogate parents around reassured us, especially with both Ron and Wilma’s can-do, it’ll-all-work-out, have-faith-and-work-hard attitude.

Three years or so later, I was carrying another baby, Natalie, into my in-law’s house when Ron met me on the steps. I was frazzled and seriously doubting my ability to handle a toddler and newborn at once, and being sleep-deprived, broke, and in the middle of graduate school didn’t help. “What a fortunate baby!” Ron bellowed, going on to say how lucky our children were to have such smart and caring parents. Then he carried in the diaper bag and some groceries I had. He was like that — confident in a way that made me feel more confident, and seamlessly helping out however he could while joking around with Wilma, or co-narrating, in panoramic detail, one of their epic travel slide shows.

They made for a richer childhood for all our kids too. I remember when Daniel was about four years old how he paused making cherry pies with his grandma and Aunt Wilma — who were singing to him, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy…” — to run outside and ride in the wheel barrow Ron and his grandpa had ready for him. Rona nd Wilma juggled babies and dinners with us at many a meal at Furr’s Cafeteria or Perkins. Along with Ken’s parents, they were even waving to us from the porch of a friend’s house in Baldwin when we pulled up for a party that turned out to be a surprise baby shower for us. They were here, ready to lend a hand, share snapshots, and eat some hamburger soup with our growing family over many years.

When they weren’t in Kansas, they rode the circuit of their family, even hoofing it in a RV for a while. Ron and his son-in-law Jim built Jim and Judy’s house in Washington state, and Ron and Wilma babysat in Ohio, took a granddaughter on an adventure in California, or simply showed up wherever a moving van for a family member needed loading or unloading. They were outrageously active in their church, making a community out of strangers, and a tightly-knit family out of extended relatives.

This summer, we made the smarter-than-we-knew-at-the-time decision to visit Uncle Ron and Aunt Wilma along with other beloved family in Seattle. During that visit, I interviewed them about how they fell in love. It turns out that Ron asked Wilma out after he discovered the girl he first had his eye on wasn’t available. Wilma, clearly in love with Ron just as he was with her from the get-go, said she only agreed because she felt sorry for him. It’s somewhat of an involved story, but as they told it, as when they told many stories, they laughed at and teased each other, recalling how their first discussion was about which state was better, Washington or Kansas. “Well, anyone with any sense would know it was Kansas,” Wilma said although she’s spent a good part of her life with Ron in his native Washington. They turned their home states into states of love where people like me and so many others could feel supported, welcomed, and start to believe things were going to be okay.

Ron, Wilma, Judy, Jennifer, Joyce, Mark, and Ken

A few days ago Ron died at the ripe old age of 93 after a rich and vigorous life. Amazingly enough, one of his daughters, who had a condition with a life expectancy that she outlived by decades, died a few hours beforehand, the family able to be with each of them. I have no doubt that Ron is helping her navigate wherever they go next, and he’s doing so with his usual humor, cheer, and love.

Which brings me back to gerunds. By making a verb into a gerund, we make it into something more ongoing. I could say I miss Ron, but it’s even more immediate to say I am missing him, right in the state of feeling what I feel. I am loving Ron too, feeling so blessed that he was such a presence in our family, and through his presence, showed me a lot more about what family being family can be.