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.
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.
Arm-in-arm, Vicky, Eduardo, Ralph, and I walked down the snowy country road, belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and doing wheelies backwards and forward in the heavy-falling snow as we laughed. It was well past midnight, probably around 1997, and I was in love with my colleagues, students, and teaching at Goddard College, where students designed their own curriculum based on what they felt compelled to learn for their communities and souls. I was sure that I would teach here until I was well past retirement age.
A few days ago, I signed, scanned and sent in my final paperwork to be formally “separated” from the college, and although I had been planning this leap from what I loved for many months, I was surprised by the panorama of emotions that engulfed me in sadness, strangeness, and something beyond naming.
Last January, insomnia took me up the mountain of making this decision until I realized it was time to come down on the side of leaving. The urge for going began over a year ago when an economic crisis at the college, coupled with my exhaustion from teaching for 64 consecutive semesters, led me to go on leave. Then the dreams, as some of my readers know, began: dreams of following retired faculty into the woods, dreams of walking away from the college in the middle of the night, dreams of saying goodbye to staff and faculty while wearing raccoon make-up. I would wake up, argue with my dreams that I loved Goddard too much to leave, then the next night, another dream kicked my butt.
The dreams didn’t come out of nowhere (as dreams rarely do): my body had been singing, signing, and whispering its leaving song for a while. I rarely went to a 10-day residency, bracketed by 12-hour travel days (and that was only if everything went according to plan) without coming home sick, then struggling for a month or two to reach equilibrium. I grappled with living mostly in Kansas but, close to four weeks each year and longer in my dreamscape, in Vermont also.
I also heard something else calling my name: growing Transformative Language Arts, the MA concentration I started and coordinated at the college since 2000. I believe in paying attention to signs and wonders that nudge us toward our real work, and although I had been able to balance teaching half-time plus doing administrative tasks at the college with facilitating writing workshops, my own writing, and coaching and consulting work, that balance was changing. I felt compelled to develop new ways to help people write and witness the guiding stories that showed them their real work, truths, and strengths.
So I made the leap. The timing was good as the college needed to reduce faculty in alignment with student enrollment, an unfortunate problem facing multitudes of small colleges lately. As I told people and amplified my wishes and ideas for evolving work, I found some new inroads and a whole lot of support. I also tripped into new ways of seeing my work and life by virtue of — surprise! — being diagnosed with eye cancer in late April, then going through treatment, and now recovery. Nothing like a whole lot of illness and healing to land a person in a new place in life!
As I move forward, regaining blurry but increasingly larger windows of vision in my right eye and in my sense of what’s next for me, I look forward to what I’ll see and be called toward. At the same time, I wanted to pause here to honor all that I love about Goddard: sitting with a student at twilight in my office as we puzzle out her study plans until she bursts out laughing and crying at once in relief because she now knew what she wants to do in her life as well as semester. Or singing “Salaam” though the thin walls of our offices with my colleague, the Rebbe Lori, before we scooted out to swim in the freezing-cold waters of the quarry between meetings and dinner.
I loved rehearsing with the faculty for our cabaret act, the Goddard College Dryland Sychronized Swimming Team, while fellow faculty member Katt kept calling out, “Now remember. We don’t want to over-rehearse” although we only had one 10-minute rehearsal.
I loved walking the wooded road from the dorm village to the library alone or with students, joking about how the wind in the trees was transmitting magic. Or those solo walks across the now-gone (due to a storm) the forest’s Wabi Sabi bridge after a long day of faculty meetings.
I loved the Wednesday morning field trips each faculty member could take with their students, especially the one where Ruth, our program’s director, joined my six students and me in the Goddard van for a wander day in which we simply aimed ourselves whatever direction we felt compelled to go. Of course, we ended up at a remote Buddhist center where we fell under the enchantment of the bells.
I loved the quiet moments in the residency cabarets when someone got up to sing, tell a story, dance, or play the piano publicly for the first time, took a breath with all of us, then began.
I loved the summer meteor showers even when, lying on a bedspread next to a dorm with a bunch of faculty, we could barely see the sky through the trees. I loved the winter nights when the snow sparkled in kaleidoscopic ways I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I adored the ways the firs and pines dropped snow from their branches in seemingly slow motion.
In the here and now of this Wednesday evening when my former colleagues are at the college for a residency, I watch my shadow self sitting in a dorm room, as I would be doing if I were still a faculty member, a stack of student papers to read and a day of meeting ideas still swirling in my head. I tell her it’s time to cross that Wabi Sabi bridge of love and memory to the here and now of where I live. The rich Kansas night air — packed with the music of katydids, cicadas, crickets, and humidity — stirs me home. I am grateful for all of where I’ve been and for wherever I’m landing.
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Maybe it’s the late landing of spring, the convergence of personal history and life lessons, or just chaos and good timing, but I’ve been tripping into unexpected graces lately, small or big moments that surprise me with such joy, connection, beauty, even something akin to healing.
On our trip to Brooklyn, New York City, and New Jersey — aka the mothership for me — grace abounded, often like a slip of paper or wings at the edge of vision. The moment we emerged at a new subway stop for us in Brooklyn, staring blankly at the sun after eight hours of travel, backpacks and suitcase heavy, a kind sanitation worker walked over to me. “What you looking for, baby?” he asked. Sometimes it’s just tiny kindnesses that can steer a person the right direction.
Days later, sitting down with old family friends my brother and I hadn’t seen in 40-plus years, I felt enveloped in a bear hug of grace and gratitude, but then again, being with people who know you from before you were born can do that. Hugging my aunts hello, setting the table with my nephew, talking on the train with my brother were all imbued with a sweetness as well as so many conversations with family members, old friends, new pals, or strangers over Chinese food or bagels throughout that trip.
Back home, I found grace in the ground, digging in the soft dirt with my hands to make enough room for some pansies, and later hauling some trash from around the yard into the back of the pick-up truck, including a broken air-conditioner and lawn mower we’ve meant to get rid of for a long time. I also found grace in hearing from a long-lost friend, apologizing to someone I was a bit impatient with, laughing with a coaching client, saying some very hard things to someone without having them take off running, and listening to story after story about the lives of two friends who have died recently.
There’s many varieties of grace, such as the grace of the delicious when we shared exquisite desserts(no dairy, sugar, or grain) with dear friends at Cafe Gratitude in Kansas City. There’s the flowering grace of magnolias, out a month later than they were last year, smiling in their pink jackets all over town. There’s the poetic grace of gathering at the river banks with an eclectic group of writers and naturalists for a reading celebrating the river, right in the middle of a fierce rowing competition erupting in cheers and the handing out of sandwiches.
I think of a moment at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, someplace we didn’t realize we were walking until we got there, our feet tired from days of putting on the miles. We climbed a steep hill, then sat on the winter-softened ground and looked toward the city. I held up a tiny hyacinth flower, thinking it would contrast nicely with the skyscrapers across the river, but what I see in the photo is what’s close up and arching over us: grace after grace after grace.
When Ken and I went to Mount St. Helens with friends several years ago, I was dazzled by the patterned forests full of checkerboard green across green. Ken explained that this pattern, so unlike all other mountains of forests I’ve ever seen, was because all the trees were the same age, starting anew together after the volcano blasted all this land clear and bare.
I’m a pattern-hunter, watching, tallying, and seeking to understand patterns that come through my life. This particularly appeals to me when happy things tumble together, like in the last 24 hours when a friend resolved a scary medical issue, my son got a new job, various friends and family landed on happy endings to challenging stories, and just this morning, several new freelance jobs of the Yes-I-Want-Them variety landed in my inbox. But sometimes a bunch of seemingly bad things happen at once: migraines, the sudden need for expensive car repairs, disappointing news about work, and loved ones getting bad or downright devastating news. Likewise, it seems that the old adage that deaths and/or other difficult news happens in threes often proves itself true.
Looking for patterns occupies me various ways, like counting how many Honda Fits and Honda CRVs I see each day because those are the cars we own (usually 2-to-1 on CRVs over Fits, but sometimes the opposite is true). If I run into three old friends in a week, that’s a pattern I embrace. If I have repeated nightmares involving looking for pay phones (remember those?) in strange cities when I didn’t have a dime to my name, I consider what this pattern may be saying to me (then again, dreams are the very stuff of patterns).
Maybe I find the pattern, or I just put pieces of the uncontrollable mystery and chaos that is life into temporary patterns to explain it to myself, but I thrive on seeing the connections of one thing to another to another. Then again, the juxtaposition of like with not-like is at the heart of writing poetry and making all sorts of other art: it catalyzes new textures and possibilities, widens perspectives, and shines up each moment to be a bit more fresh and vibrant. Looking for relationships between happenings and sightings also helps me see the wild strands of the marvelous and miraculous in the everyday.
Then again, what isn’t a pattern? Nature is all about patterns of growth, decay, and regeneration. A plant, like this fern, grows in a patterned way, and so do we (although we can tweak the pattern with diet, exercise, or the lack of). Seasons pattern us in their patterned parade through, and life itself cycles through its patterns.
What we tell ourselves about being alive, our very philosophies, are often the bedrocks of patterns, such as “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end” (repeated often in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). No doubt the flip side pattern will take center stage again….and again….but I choose to embrace the inevitable good, or at least not horrendous, ending.
Which brings me back to Mount St. Helens, one of the worst tragedies imaginable for people and other species caught in it, yet now that place is bursting with life, such a diversity of plants and animals reinhabiting the valleys and mountains, seemingly growing at the speed of sound. But new life is like that: it comes fast and with great promise, so why not take the time to consider its textures, shapes, colors, and meanings in our own life patterns?