When Miriam Finishes Wandering the Desert: Everyday Magic, Day 911

Late last night, as I sent my novel Miriam’s Well to my wonderful publisher, Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, I reworked a summary of this 500-plus page book that’s been at the heart of my writing life for 13 years:

In this modern day retelling of the biblical story, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers, Aaron, a successful New York City attorney, and Moses, a Kansas autistic artist. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People’s Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and meaning.

The amazing painting (sunset on the Platte River) by Anne Burkholder that will be on the cover of the novel.

This morning, waking up to the first day in the many years when I wasn’t finishing this book, I realized, that for all intensive purposes, the Miriam of my imagination is done wandering the desert. I got off easy compared to biblical Miriam’s 40 years of wandering, after which she never even got to the promised land (at least in that telling of her life). I’ve gotten lost, and eventually found, in many sentences in the writing and revision of the book, thanks to my tried-and-true process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” then reworking my words for eons. I’ve read the in-process book in entirety aloud to Ken twice, and parts of it to Brave Voice participants occasionally, but from here on, the “in-process” part of the process is finished.

It’s a strange feeling to complete a big book that takes everything you think you can do, and asks of you to do more and go farther. So many times, I couldn’t figure out how to develop a scene, flesh out a curve in the plot, or show, with greater transparency but still enough mystery, who a character is. As I tell my students and workshop participants, sometimes you just have to tell yourself you’re not just smart enough to write something at the moment, shrug it off, write something else, then return to the page. Also, writing is a way of knowing: my hands on the keyboard had led me often to language that was far beyond me thinking into words.

Now I’m sitting on the porch in the rain during a morning thunderstorm, reminding myself I don’t need to rework something in the book that I loved writing so much. Despite the glory of being finished, I’m sad. Then I remind myself: I’m only leaving the writing of it. I’ll be doing readings from this novel for anyone who will listen for years, and I’ll be talking at length about its nuances, and what might happen to Miriam after the end of the novel (although I wish I fully knew). Of course, there will be many more times to proofread the book, even after the advance copies are printed and distributed this fall in time for us to garner some reviews for a Passover 2018 release date.

In time, just like Miriam, I’ll be done wandering, and in the case of such a long-term project, wondering how to shape each paragraph, lift and close each chapter. Miriam will find her next story, and so will I.

You can drive a long way in Kansas and never leave the state, like 340 miles west from my home to western Kansas, and still be a ways from a state border. That’s just what I did to give a Kansas Humanities Council talk on wild weather in poetry, photography and our lives at one of the great community jewels-of-a-library, Pioneer Memorial Library (astonishing array of programs for all ages, and even a coloring night!)

The trip was fueled by coffee, of course, plus, because I’m trying to give up my M&Ma-and-Cheetos road trip habits, an entire box of Nut Thins (don’t judge me), hummus, a perfect Pink Lady apple, and an over-ripe banana. Getting over a cold necessitated a lot of over-the-counter meds and turmeric interspersed with those great Ricola cough drops. Between miles 107 and 200, I believe pretzels were involved while blasting podcasts of “This American Life” or singing loudly to “Now I Have Everything” from Fiddler on the Roof.

The view from my hotel room

I love the open road, and there’s few better ways to experience it than to drive to western Kansas where the locals consider it a little jaunt to go 50 miles, and where the sky widens and deepens all directions. The traffic is often non-existent, and it’s easy to get lost in all that open space, speed, and splendor of sky. I also love western Kansas where my mind relaxes, and the air is brighter, cooler, and often clearer.

The downside of losing track of things is that, instead of remembering to fill my tank in Hays, I got too caught up a podcast about a prison nurse falling in love with an inmate. Just as my caffeine- and cold-medicine-induced panic was about to rise, I saw an exit leading to a clearly abandoned gas station. The sign had been hollowed out from years of wind, and the building’s windows were whitened from the inside to block out viewing. But something told me to take the exit, where I found a red sign that said “Credit Card Pumps.” I pulled out my credit card, and took my chances. When the gas started flowing, I lifted my arms to thank the god of abandoned gas stations.

But then, when a person is lucky, that’s what expansive travel can be. “Ask and it shall be given” came true for me throughout this little jaunt, such as when I realized I desperately needed a bathroom, and lo and behold, a rest stop appeared, which I had never noticed in the 213 times over 30+ years I’ve done this drive before. Or dinner, which can be dicey in rural communities on occasion when the only restaurant open is a gas station that sells stale pizza. I lucked out with one of the best Midwestern official fried chicken dinner (which always includes mashed potatoes, corn, and a roll) at the Welcome Home cafe (dinner also included a superb salad and fruit bar).

Wanting to stretch my legs after filling my belly, I wandered near the restaurant, which was in a kind of antique-mall-meets-strip-mall-meets-car-dealership, and I came up to what we know in Kansas as Wheatus Jesus, the haunting billboard I’ve seen from 75 mph for years but never stood beside. It’s very impressive, and so is the big field nearby at sunset. Right there, for a reason I couldn’t fathom, there was platform overlooking the field, but the steps to it were blocked by big pots of cherry tomatoes in the middle of a sunflower forest. I was going to climb the stairs to the forbidden platform, but my first step in set off some growling creature, so I jumped back just in time to remove a bunch of sticktites.

Now I’m home, the miles behind me, and the quiet of home all around me. Once again I’m glad to be home, but I’m also glad to have gone.

Yup, this is the photo that will wrap around the book cover. Thanks to Daniel and Ken Lassman for taking it together.

My posts are fewer and further apart at the same time that I’ve been thinking about this blog more than ever. That’s because I’ve been working on Everyday Magic, the book based on this blog. As with most things, it’s more work than I imagined, but a lot more fun too.

The first phase was wandering through over 900 blog posts to figure out what top 250 or so posts should make it into the book. Given the limits of what my mind can hold, let’s just say there were charts, lists, categories, earnest struggles between ego and what makes for perhaps better reading, then most lists and charts.

From there, I moved to revision land, a place many roads and bike trails lead to, but few seem to lead back out again. Revising a piece of writing is like weeding a vegetable garden so large that by the time you get from beginning to end, there’s been a monsoon and invasion of rabbits. What you thought was there is long gone, and what you cleared is now suffocating the once towering broccoli. Commas invade or seem to run off together in a huff, and then there’s the surprise gaps between sense and nonsense. I also wanted to find a good balance of funny and tender, hot and cold (literally with so many posts on weather), grief and joy, charged news of the day and breezy observations of a sweet evening.

Once I finished with that — although finishing is always an arbitrary moment a writer lifts her hands to the sky, and says, “enough….I think” — it was proofreading time. Thanks to my friend Rosalea, I relocated the herd of commas as well as easing out excessive bouts of verbiage. Punctuation can be illusive, people, so be on the watch. It’s also amazing common to type the word “the” as “the the.”

Now the book is with my publisher, Tracy and her fine Meadowlark Press, where more proofreading is surely a thing, then design, proofs, galleys, and hopefully enough time and clear eyes on the pages to catch what needs to be caught. Eventually this fall sometime, the book moves out of my house and into a dorm room of its own, hopefully remembering to go to classes and stretch its legs into its new life.

The view from here and now

There’s also been an adventure in revisiting the stories I tell myself and obviously you, the kind and patient reader. While there have been moments when I had to hit my forehead with my palm, despairing that I’m still hung up on the same meaningless crap (will I ever completely give up of yearning to lose weight?), there’s also been ample revelations about how outrageously blessed I am to be part of my family, community, the prairies of Kansas, and at this moment, the woods of Vermont that I’m sharing at just above the top of this computer. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

P.S. I’m still searching for a subtitle for the book. If you can help me figure one out, I’ll send you a free book once it’s out. Contenders currently are the following. Please feel free to say which you like, and/or to suggest other subtitles.

  1. Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on Ordinary and Extraordinary Curiosity, Beauty, and Surprise
  2. Everyday Magic:: Fieldnotes on Curiosity and Charm in Life’s Wild Tumble
  3. Everyday Magic: True Stories in Search of Curiosity and Wonder
  4. Everyday Magic:: Living with Beauty, Verve, and Surprise
  5. Everyday Magic:: Curiosity, Beauty, and Surprise, One Blog Post At a Time

Update Aug. 31, 2018: Thank you everyone for your great suggestions! I’m going to go with Maril’s subtitle, which is pithy and comprehensive: Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and the Miraculous.

 

I didn’t see my first rainbow until I was 12 on the day my newborn brother died. In the middle of our house stuffed with grieving relatives, my younger brother and I quietly sipped soup at the kitchen counter early that evening until I noticed something strange and beautiful in the backyard. Within seconds, all of us were outside, amazed by a perfect arc over our house while my grandmothers, first in Yiddish, then in English, hugged us and said this was the miracle God gave us after taking our brother.

Why I didn’t see a rainbow until I was 12 was because I wasn’t looking, not having imagined rainbows were possible in real life. Growing up in Brooklyn, then central New Jersey, there were also a lot of buildings, trees, houses, and shopping malls in the way.

After I married an rainbow whisperer, able to read the sky and aim us toward wherever the most likely rainbow is, I learned that rainbows, especially in areas of the country prone to late afternoon storms, can be everyday happenings. “Not rare but precious,” Ruth Gendler wrote about beauty in her book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Nothing could be truer of rainbows in summertime Kansas, where mountains and an excess of trees don’t get in the way.

How to see a rainbow? When the sun is nearing one horizon, and dark clouds fill the other horizon, look carefully at those dark clouds directly across from the sun. Although I’ve slept through many early morning rainbows, I do catch early evening ones. When our often southwest-to-northeast storms have moved past us, and the setting sun breaks through its western clouds, poof! There’s a rainbow somewhere.

Meteorologically, we know light , reflected, refracted and dispersed through water droplets, cooks up rainbows. Looking at the meaning gets more tricky although symbolism abounds bout light piercing darkness. After the flood, the crew, animals and humans, on Noah’s arc witnessed a helluva rainbow, which we can call a symbol of hope, miracles, redemption, new beginnings, and according to the tale and film Finian’s Rainbow, our heart’s deepest dreams coming true (check out Fred Astaire and Petula Clark singing “Look to the Rainbow”). Living in Kansas, we can never escape all manner of Wizard of Oz references (step outside of the state, and someone is bound to say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”).  But of course, we also claim one of the best rainbow songs and singers of all time — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the ever-vibrant Judy Garland, who yearns to get the hell out of Kansas until she escapes. Then she yearns with all her being to be back under the rainbow.

Yesterday, walking into the Merc to buy a bunch of zucchini, one vibrant curve surprised me. As I stood at the entrance to the store in wonder, I pointed out the rainbow to a woman about to shop also. “Look like God has given us!” she said while starting to cry. “Yes,” I answered her. We both stared into the rainbow, taking many photos with our phones, which alerted would-be shoppers to stop and look up.

Driving home, it was rainbow slivers and half-arcs all the way until  a full rainbow, so vibrant and stunning that I couldn’t help but back myself up into the chigger-and-tick-filled tallgrass to take more photos. I remembered how the arc is just part of the full circle of a rainbow, which puts me in mind of a song Kelley Hunt and I wrote called “Miracle” with this chorus:

A round rainbow is called a glory.

What you survive in life is called a glory.

You never see the arc of it until after the storm.

To see the whole miracle, you have to hold on.

The workaday miracle is where you belong.

Last night’s rainbow, like the first rainbow I ever saw, soared over my home, reminding me again of the everyday miracles we’ve given, and also how we can never see the whole miracle until after the storm.

I used to beat myself up for bad self-care. After all, it’s the common and actually excellent wisdom of the day that most of us need to practice better and more consistent ways of taking care of our precious selves, particularly in a world lit up with hand-held and hands-on screens, bringing us new things to do 24/7. But there’s far more to what ails us than just our inability at times to eat, sleep, work, exercise, socialize, and meditate right, and sometimes the popular push for self-care, all good-intentioned, can leave those of us who have chronic issues feeling like we failed once again.

Case in point: I’m sick now, nothing very serious, and after struggling against a virus or something like it for six weeks. I had to leave a yoga class yesterday, a restorative yoga class at that, because I realized in no uncertain terms it was time to get treatment and get horizontal. Like none of us, I can’t say my life is always (or often) stress-free, I do sleep 8-9 hours each night, eat healthy and often organic food, get together for loving lunches with friends, enjoy a replenishing and humorous marriage, work in the sunshined garden regularly, entertain myself with meaningful work, do yoga and take long walks, and watch my share of stupid-funny movies. We even have a new air-purifier and ionizer in our home. I’m also working with a great integrative physician on improving my health, and at times, making strides. (Note: please, no further advice at this point.)

But there’s far more to being healthy than is in our control. There’s hereditary, environmental, karmic, and everyday tendencies and exposures beyond our control. I think of the husbands of two of my closest friends: one of them is undergoing chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant to treat late-stage lymphona. The other just had an emergency heart aneurysm surgery to repair what would have ended his life. They’re both guys who take care of themselves and practice, in many ways, what many of us would define as good self-care. I think the Turning Point writing workshops I facilitate for people living with serious illness: altogether, participants are a delightful and vivid crew who face late-stage cancer, M.S., Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes, or other illness. One of them worked as a personal trainer for years until cancer changed her life. Another leads a model lifestyle for health and well-being, but being exposed to Agent Orange while serving as a nurse in Vietnam gave her Parkinson’s disease. Some, despite the eternal presence of M & Ms in our sessions, eat whole grains and 5-7 servings of vegetables each day. Yet here they are.

I believe so much in finding our own best self-care, and constantly dialoguing with these vibrant and aching bodies of ours to discover what, in this moment, is the best way to go forth: weed a garden or watch a movie, take a nap or whip up a giant salad, call a friend or read a novel. I’m glad that among my friends and in many of the articles I read, the term “self-care” frequently makes an appearance as we grapple with how to incorporate this more deeply into the core of our lives.

What I’m trying to release, however, is the damaging message sometimes buried in how we talk about self-care that getting sick or diagnosed with something serious indicates our lack of effort or discipline. Sure, I have lots of empirical evidence that eating too many desserts is detrimental to my health, but I’ve seen plenty of people with pristine diets go through chemotherapy or radiation because cancer showed up anyway.

It’s not just the messages we might give ourselves (Caryn to self: I’m sick again; self to Caryn: What did you do wrong now?). It’s occasionally the subtle or not-so-subtle messages we convey to each other. Yes, there are very effective supplements to bolster our immune systems, anti-inflammatory ways of eating, and exercise protocols to strengthen our muscles and our spirits, but they’re not always enough. Let alone the cliche and truth that life is a terminal illness, we each have our own Achilles heels, and mysterious lesson plans to be revealed as we live them.

So when the chips are down, the body too, there’s a whole other aspect of self-care to embrace: compassion toward ourselves, and tenderness toward this life that stops us in our tracks at moments, reminding us that while there’s a lot we can do for ourselves and others, we’re not in ultimate control.