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On the Edge of the Holidays: Everyday Magic, Day 1043

Last night with Venus rising (to the left)

There’s something both stark and magical about the time right before the holiday season opens wide and emcompasses us in a whole lot of baking, cooking, driving to the airport to pick up or being the ones picked up. Last year, we were encased in our pods, bubbles, and virus-avoidant clans, and although this year the door is more ajar with many of us vaccinated and welcomed into each other’s homes, we’re still not out of the pandemic woods.

It’s unclear whether this is the new normal for years to come or another transition phase of masking up to buy turkeys after recovering from being wiped out by a booster shot. Yet whatever it is, I have the distinct sense that we’re not going back to the old normal, and while I’m hoping for more safety and better health for all, there’s also something almost sweet about taking it slow, having smaller gatherings, taking care to protect one another’s health, and hopefully dwelling in more quiet time to just be.

For so many years, I rocked an inherent tension between wanting more solitude and quiet time to read, write, and consider life on the gravel road and also wanting so much to see family and connect more deeply with many cherished friends at one gathering after another. In my journal from 2019, I actually made a list of all the dozen-plus holiday gatherings — small parties, big-ass meals, large gatherings, many a restaurant rendezvous, and the like — and wrote underneath this list how tired I was and how much I wanted to just sit in a chair next to a pile of books in between micro naps. Last year,my wish came true with a vengeance.

Now those colder nights are slowly landing (after a much longer and warmer fall than usual), and tomorrow is Thanksgiving when a small group of close ones come over to eat and visit, socially-distanced but also together. Yet I don’t feel that slipping-into-sugar-and-crowds immersion I used to feel this time of the year. There’s something about a pandemic that sobers us the holidays but also makes times to connect even more lit from within.

At the same time, I’m more cognizant of those of us who might feel lonely, isolated, sad, or afraid. That’s also something that gets clearer through a pandemic. So while I can’t even pretend to dream up what next year will be, I can wish for you that the coming season is a time when you feel at home in the world and on the inside of belonging to yourself and to all of us. Happy Thanksgiving.

For the Love of Phil on the Day of the Dead: Everyday Magic, Day 1042

It’s not lost on me that it’s the Day of the Dead, when we remember and honor our departed beloveds (between Oct. 31-Nov. 2 this year). The veil is thinner during this time between worlds, dimensions, states of being, the spirit world and the world we seemingly inhabit. I’m thinking loud and often about a very recent departed dear one, Phil Brater, a phenomenal man who saved my life when I was a traumatized teen.

I was 15 when I met Phil, one of the leaders of the Temple Shaari Emeth youth group in Manalapan, New Jersey. The rabbi of our congregation, when I met with him at the urging of my father (freaked out that when he said he was suicidal, I said I was too) hooked me up with the youth group to give me more stability. It gave me much more: a sense of belonging, plus equal doses of sanity and humor, but most of all, it gave me Phil.

There’s an old Yiddish saying that we can survive anything if it’s part of a story, but to have a story really help us bring together the shards of our brokenness, we need someone to listen to it and help us see it in new lights and bigger perspectives. Phil was my witness, my confidant, my ad hoc therapist, and my spiritual advisor all in one.

In short order, Phil told me to come 30 minutes early each week to youth group so we could talk, and talk we did, usually sitting in a hallway, our backs leaning against the white-painted cinder block walls between kids’ classrooms. I would tell Phil of my parents’ long and damaging divorce, the price and pain of my rupture from most of my family, and what it was like living with a father who kicked or screamed at me most days. I shared what seemed like an endless well of sadness, insecurity, shame, and how I couldn’t see a way out of this.

Mostly he listened. Sometimes he held my hand or strategized with me about how to get through the next year, month, day. Always he told me that no child should have to go through what I was going through, caught in a maze of a mess so thick we could not see what to do to change things without exposing me to potentially more danger. But because of Phil, I had a way out I couldn’t see at time although I was desperate each week to sink to the ground in the dim hallway with him and start talking.

Having someone who truly verified each week that I wasn’t crazy, that things were indeed bad, and that I was strong, smart, and creative enough to survive this — even if believing that was a vast trick of suspended belief — helped me get strong, smart, and creative enough. He also praised whatever scrap of poetry I brought him and told me to keep writing no matter what, telling me that poetry was one of my best ways through all this.

Phil came by his genius for help and healing naturally, it seemed, and through his vocation as a guidance counselor at an all-girls’ school in New York City where most of the girls were navigating poverty, violence, and mental illness in themselves and their families. So he knew how to work with people like me and many others who were struggling, even in our middle-class suburban youth group. But mostly, he was innately gifted and inherently intelligent when it came to being wildly present with people in pain.

When I say “wildly,” I mean it. Phil (as well as his brother-in-law, who co-led the youth group) had a wicked sense of humor, and nothing was too disgusting or out of the pale for our youth group to fall out of our chairs laughing about. Phil also had a no-holds-barred high-pitched laugh and absolutely no self-consciousness about being himself. Through his fierce love of his wife and daughters, he also showed me what it meant to be a mensch and good family man.

Although we stayed in touch since that time through letters or phone calls, and occasionally a visit, I got to see him and actually co-present with him at the old temple in 2014. Fittingly, I was giving a reading from my novel, The Divorce Girl, a semi-autobiographical novel (the plot and some of the incidents were from my life but all the characters, including the main one — who was taller and smarter than me — were fictional). When I thanked Phil for all he did for me, then people started asking him questions as well as me, and soon he was standing next to me.

“How did you help her become a writer?” one person asked. Phil said, “You know, you just find out what someone is interested in and encourage them.” This was completely true, but the bigger story is that he showed me the power of telling our stories aloud and on the page.

Phil is the one who first shone the flashlight of good listening enough for me to see not just my way out but how writing and listening could be a way for others to find their own path. I credit him with helping me become a teacher and facilitator, and much of what I know of the power of such an encounter informed my development of Transformative Language Arts, a field that encourages people to make community and change through what we say and write.

When I hugged Phil goodbye seven years ago, I told him I would try to visit again. Although I very much wanted to, being so far away, then the distance magnified by the pandemic kept me of seeing him alive again. Another old temple pal let me know that he died October 27. I’m sad that he’s gone, and I especially wish his wonderful family all comforts and peace possible.

Phil’s life on this side of the veil is over, but my full circle time with him is so embedded in my heart that he will never be dead to me. And in case he can hear or read this (my idea of the afterlife would surely include a lot of reading), thank you, Phil, for getting me through the hardest three years of my life. Love in action like yours never dies.

Listening to the Land With New Hearing: Everyday Magic, Day 1061

Lying in bed this morning between layers of flannel with a purring kitty under the covers with me, I dreamed in and out of the call of a barred owl, seemingly on the other side of the window. Its call sounded different than the night time “who cooks for you?” call, more like a rooster cock-a-doodling up, then a cat purr-meowing down. Surely it was a hunting call, Ken said, and maybe the sudden absence of squirrels on the deck proved this.

I’m learning to listen to the land with new hearing. Since the eye cancer’s Rube Goldberg-esque antics of cancer leading to radiation in the face leading to extensive dental drilling leading to tinnitus, my hearing has been encased in a bubble of white noise. Sometimes, like lately as I recover from various insults to the sinuses (a cold, mold allergies), the hum-buzz-shush of sound is louder, and sometimes the volume is lowered.

But there’s always something, and I know tinnitus impacts so many of us and it’s not personal to me. Still, learning to hear in this new way is personal. It lets in sound at different volumes than in the past. Words people say are harder to grasp but background noise is amplified. I’m also more attuned to the sounds of the land: the chatter-scuffle-leaps of squirrels on the deck railing, the lift-up of starlings in the field, and the wind clanging what’s left of Cottonwood Mel’s leaves against branches.

I’m also listening to quiet, at least relative quiet (because the sound is never not there) more through my daily meditation when I give myself over to being in this cocoon of the noise of my brain (which is what tinnitus is — we lose some of what filters out that noise). In a strange way, it’s become a comforting sensation of being held in a gentle and constant rocking hush. Other times the pitch gets higher, and it’s just annoying, but I’m trying to befriend even that because it’s also reality.

Meanwhile, just as — to paraphrase e.e. cummings’ poem — the eyes of my eyes were opened in new ways, now the ears of my ears are opening. There’s a big world of wind and rain, cats and owls, and so much more to hear in this land. “Oh, the sounds of the earth are like music,” goes the beginning of one verse of Oklahoma’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” So why not tune in and listen to what this music of the earth is telling us?

Make Mine an MRI With a Side of Enya and a Rainbow for Dessert: Everyday Magic, Day 1060

Question: How many MRIs does it take a claustrophobe to relax?

Answer: When Brandon, the wonderful (re: tolerant) MRI tech asked I told him I’ve lost count. Nothing like tunnelling, sleeping, and freaking out at times through two bouts of cancer, plus having some greater risk of other cancers, to make that too many MRIs, Catscans, X-rays, blood tests, and other cancer wellness (as in, “if we find nothing, all is well”) to count.

Today was my annual MRI to make sure there’s no tiny pancreatic cancer cells hovering around the corner. While I’ve never had this cancer, it’s what killed my father and uncle, and it can also be tied to being BRCA1 positive (which I am, meaning I have a breast cancer genetic mutation). This MRI cross-bred with my quarterly scans to ensure I have nothing from the eye cancer I had traveling to other parts of the body.

As someone who used to be terrified of lots of scans, especially MRIs and anything where I’ve sent into a tube (I once visited the underworld during a Petscan), these are a deal for me, or at least they used to be. I’ve needed heavy sedation on a cocktail of you-are-somewhere-far-far-away drugs numerous times. Even then, according to my good friend Judy who once sang me Jewish prayers and Buddhist chants during one, I still kicked my legs wildly the whole time.

But when faced with the reality of many more scans in what I hope is a long and healthy life, I’ve been working on giving up my panic and dread. For the last few years, I’ve talked with my therapist about exposure therapy and how my life is giving me this in bundles when it comes to scans. What also helps is Enya.

I had almost forgotten how much I loved Enya’s music in bygone eras, but a few years ago, I was given the choice of listening to her or the Beatles during an MRI, and I chose Enya. It turns out that Enya provides the perfect antidote to the patterns of sonic booms and yelps sounding through me, which altogether feel like having my body energetically probed by some benevolent extraterrestrials.

Enya’s soaring harmonies and bell-clear voice winding around me during an MRI cradles me in an angelic choir, even as the machine loudly bellows and chimes its surveying of my torso. I listen to Enya as well as the machine’s pre-recorded female voice telling me to hold my breath for various intervals of 11-20 seconds, then breathe normally.

This MRI and my one last October were actually, unbelievably, pleasant. With my head on a pillow, my arms above my head resting on that pillow, and the slate I was on going in and out of the Easy Bake oven of the machine, I felt calm, at times almost happy, and so greatly relieved that I could do this without snapping into too-far-down-the-tracks-to-stop fight or flight mode. I also fantasized about exactly what I would order for breakfast at Wheatfields, where we go after each MRI, and how good that French toast and bacon would taste. And it helped having Ken there, breathing with me.

Back home after many hours in and around the hospital waiting for the good news that yes, all was clear and this was another Well Caryn visit after all, I watched the early evening sky brighten in the west while in the east, the dark clouds acted if they were holding a rainbow somewhere. I ran into the house and got Ken, a champion rainbow-whisperer, then we walked through the field south of our house rainbow-hunting until we found it, brightening over the 10 minutes we searched and even doubling.

It was only half a visible rainbow, but I’ll take that, and all the Enya music that comes my way with gratitude. I’ll even take the MRI, an adventure I would never have signed up for in advance but one that helps me relax in small spaces filled with sound, motion, and the wonders of medical technology that can save our lives.

The Changing of the Light: Everyday Magic, Day 1059

Beyond the lower temperatures and chigger count, there’s something else that truly distinguishes this time of year: the changing of the light. The blues get bluer, the pinks and oranges get more silvery, and the hazy summer air dries out to clearer edges and hues all around.

Summer in Kansas often feels endless, and not in a romantic, please-summer-never-end kind of way. It gets hot and stays hot. The hummingbirds fight-zip into each other, the cicadas’ walls of humming roars pour through us in waves of insanity, and sometimes, like this summer, it’s crazy-humid whenever the temperature fall below 90 degrees. It can be downright dangerous to walk in fields or even mowed lawns because of chiggers, ticks, and around the farm, occasional snakes. Depending on the day, stepping outside feels either like being in the middle of a sauna or, or on windy days, being inside a dryer tumbling us around.

May starts to get hot. June is definitely hot. July is hotter. August seems even hotter, but it could be that we’ve lost our minds by then. Even September acts like summer for much of its windy parade through, but then something happens. A switch is thrown, and suddenly, we’re in days in the 70s, nights in the 50s, and refreshing rains and cleansing winds return.

Then there’s the light: softer and more forgiving and, at the same time, more brilliant. Like this morning when, although I’m not a morning person, I got up at 6 a.m., and without even putting on my glasses, stepped outside to snap this photo before going back to bed, grateful for this generous sky.

9/11 From the Vantage Point of a Subway Dweller: Everyday Magic, Day 1058

Twenty years ago it happened. Ten years ago I wrote this post. So much of it is still true, and there’s so much more to say about the heartbreaking state of polarity, divisiveness, and home-grown hatred in our country. About the pandemic-catalyzed resilience and mutual aid as well as abuse, addiction, anxiety, poverty, and despair. About all those gone, recently or a long time going. Also about the changes that make us better and better able to face our collective American history, especially the worst of who we’ve been and can be. About perseverance, innovation, and the love that abides. Especially about the love that abides and the importance of memory. Here is my little love note for part of where I grew up, in the shadows of the towers that went up when I was growing up.

“Those god-awful towers,” my father said in disgust. He wasn’t alone: we all thought they were wicked ugly, too big, and besides, they would and did block the light from our neck of the woods, three blocks away, never mind that we were underground. Down the steps to the Fulton-Nassau Street station was a small arcade of stores, including our own, the Subway Stamp Shop, which my dad and grandpa ran.

My dad in the stamp shop so long ago.

I grew up spending many Saturdays and holidays there, emerging frequently for walks around the block, heading with Grandpa to Chock’full’o’nuts on the corner (where I would dip my chocolate donut in his coffee), forays to get ice creams of a slice of pizza, and trips to the bathroom, which entailed going to the building next door, getting the key, riding the elevator up eight floors, and walking down a long hall.

Below ground was a kind of kid paradise. There was a candy stand, complete with stacked rows of Chuckles and M & Ms. Need I say more? There was also a jewelry shop full of silver and glass, a shoe-shine place with an ancient Black man who always smiled at me and told me how beautiful I was, a barber shop where they spent more time reading the paper and complaining than cutting hair, and a fabled diner where I sat on a high stool inhaling grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate malts. Faced with the choice of spending the day helping my mom with housework in first our Brooklyn triplex and later our New Jersey Levitt house or coming to the store, it was no contest.

I grew up down these stairs

The towers started being built when I was an impressionable kid of six and were finished when I was nearly 12. To say everyone around us hated them was an understatement. It wasn’t just the shadow they cast but what they symbolized to my dad and other small business owners who tended to despise the ruling class, particularly those on the rung just above them who worked white-collar jobs in the towers and had impressive college degrees.

“College-educated idiots,” my dad called them and everyone else to whom the term the applied which, in his mind included millions. It didn’t help that between my three siblings and me, we amassed seven college degrees, the first generation in our family to not go from high school to largely a life of full-time work. My dad started college but was derailed from where it might lead him by becoming a father very quickly (to me) while having to balance multiple jobs in between his schemes — often successful, for a time — to make money, which included selling plus-sized polyester clothes at the Englishtown Auction, working as an antique auctioneer, some kind of tax shelter deal that didn’t work out too well, and occasionally buying out stamp and coin supply shops.

When the plane hit the towers, I reacted like most of us, shocked, but consoling myself with the only thing my mind could imagine: it was an accident. When the second plane hit, and then I heard from some construction workers on New Hampshire street in downtown Lawrence that the first tower “went down like a pancake,” I walked quickly to my car, shut the door, turned up the news and cried. I also raced home to make phone calls (this was before everyone carried a cell phone), first to find out if my brother, who worked seven blocks away was okay, then to call my dad.

My brother couldn’t be reached for a little while, but we soon heard he was fine — he walked the other direction from the towers to catch the ferry home. He was shaken but intact after feeling his whole building shake, windows breaking and then everyone oddly calm and organized in getting themselves outside and home.

My father, who had since moved the business to Pennsylvania, was incredulous. The towers we always hated were suddenly a broken object we loved. They no longer symbolized class warfare but instead a unity that enveloped us. Just as the signs around the world read, “We are all New Yorkers,” those of of us with downtown NY roots were now all Twin Tower people. “The whole world’s gone crazy. This is going to lead to big wars, a mess financially, the whole world falling apart,” my father said. Then he added his rhetorical response to the world: “What you gonna do?”

Yet most of what it led to wouldn’t include my dad. He was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, ironically enough, on September 11, 2002. I found out late at night when, coming from from a 9/11 service that I read a poem at, Ken told me my sister called and said I should call her back immediately. After calling her, I spoke to my dad, who said, “What you gonna do?” He died four months later.

Now it’s ten years since the attack. Most years since then, I’ve returned to the store, or at least tried to. The entrance to this part of the subway is usually closed (due to the damage and then the construction from 9/11), but still, I always get my picture taken in front of it. In fact, the first thing I do when going to the city is usually the pilgrimage to the site of the store. Posing with the entryway is like posing with part of the family. In the last few years, the stores in the neighborhood changed drastically. Gone are the small locally-owned clothes from India or sporting goods stores, little delis and pizzarias. Suddenly, there are all chain stores around, and I say suddenly, I mean mostly in the last year. The world where I grew up is layers beneath the one I see.

Yet several years ago, the entrance to the subway arcade was open. I ran down the stairs to find every store out of business and locked up, and the entrance to the subway gated and locked too. Standing there, on the cement floor in the middle of these ghost stores, I felt strangely at home. All of this world may be gone, but in my mind, I hear words like “Angola” and “pre-folded hinges” and “stamp tongs” and see myself at age seven, drawing abstract snakes at the big table of stamps under glass in a tiny store. My grandfather is chain-smoking, my father is arguing with his mother on the phone, and the store is crowded with a Hassidic man looking over stamps beside a Sikh in his turban and an ex-showgirl in her pancake makeup and heels. We were all subway dwellers, so far underground and away from how the future would rise and fall.

The Call: Everyday Magic, Day 1057

Why a sunflower? Because it’s what blooming right now, and it follows the call of the sun, which is loud and blaring too.

This morning, I gave a short talk at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation’s Rosh Hashana service on Shafarot, a calling to live with greater awareness and purpose, to examine what we need to change or release or summon our courage and strength to do, and to be more of a mensch. I ended up, no surprise given the subject matter and how I grapple with things, writing this poem.

The Call of the Shofar

It is not just the old call in the bones

and quiet of memory, the temple

falling, the exiles returning,

the temple rebuilding itself

through our hands and acts, the readying

of whatever clearing—right outside

our front door on a hot September afternoon

—welcomes the presence of what

we cannot name but names us.

The call of the shofar is a question,

staccato as cicadas or long-necked arching

into the sunset tonight. What is here?

It asks. Who? We might answer,

or just as misguided, Why?

But all such music—part animal,

part wind, part invisible, part visible

even if we miss it—is always

a conversation. Did you hear that?

Each inhalation a slip of sound

we finally grasp, Each exhalation a surrender

to how little we know, especially about

the confluences of our own voices so far

behind us, around old bends that shape

our hours now, so far ahead of us into

the chatter of babies or birds, the rush

of storms through the fields of the future,

the sound of the shofar running

or stilling itself like water,

like this river of life.

Lightning maybe. Thunder.

A flash of clear blue again. Quiet.

Then the call and response we are made for:

Let your old temples fall.

Raise your eyes. Return.

Listen. Listen Listen.

In Search of the Big-Ass Trees: Everyday Magic, Day 1046

When we went to the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, we had a mission: behold as many big-ass trees as possible. Thanks to our friends Carl and Sara obliging or humoring us, that’s just what happened.

Why the big-ass trees? Why not hang out with big marvels of the natural world at this moment in time when there’s so much human-triggered despair and war, grief and stupidity, encompassing everything from the pandemic to climate change to the big-ass mess in Afghanistan.

Maybe my quest also has to do with my age or old karma, but whatever it is, there are places on this earth that are happy to provide abundantly, particularly in the northwest. Right in Carl and Sara’s neighborhood in Vancouver, WA, there were large bouts of big-ass trees, particularly along a few blocks known as “the grove,” full of sequoias, grand firs, Oregon ashes, and red alders, often well over 80 feet high.

Then there’s Oregon Garden botanical park, a wonderland of lushness and color that also sported a conifer garden full of large, looming trees posing as abstract monsters. We also hiked up and down and down up in Silver Falls State park in Oregon where the trees were especially massive and soaring. I spent a lot of time looking up, then looking down quickly to make sure I didn’t trip on the climbing or winding-down trails.

But the thing about big-ass trees is that there’s a lot to see when you look down. Their root systems are mazes of wonder and time, wrapping around boulders and across hills. In fact, the roots are vivid reminders of how much we need to secure ourselves to something relatively solid to survive and grow (but sometimes it’s easy to trip over our own roots too).

Back home among the more petite trees of our clime, I’m reminded of the vast possibilities all around us, even and especially with cedars and Osage oranges I can wrap my arms around or slim cottonwoods well-schooled in bending in the wild wind. I think about something I once heard about how the trees are just migrating through even if they make their stand for hundreds or thousands of years in a single place. I also think of how sometimes what seems small is far more infinite than we can image. Aspen trees, often just slips of things compared with the largeness of sequoias or firs, are actually the biggest organism in the world, sending forth roots underground to grow another and another and another leg of themselves.

So let’s hear it for the big- and small-ass wonders of this world, no matter where they are, and how much they can bring us home to the shining green and mottled bark all around us. May we, like them, continue to grow another ring around our center year after year, reminding us how we’re big and small all at once.

10 Reasons to Come to Brave Voice: Everyday Magic, Day 1045

Kelley Hunt and my 16th annual six-day Brave Voice, Sept. 19-24 in Council Grove, Kansas. We have strong Covid protocols in place to keep everyone protected (all participants must show proof of vaccination, we’ll be spread out and will use masks for big group meetings), and the White Memorial Camp is also very committed to keeping us all healthy and safe. Everyone you need will be right at the camp too, including delicious, healthy meals (with vegan and vegetarian options).

Why should you join us at this retreat? Here’s some reasons:

  1. Magic: Yes, there is real magic, and it happens when you get a group of people who love to create — write, sing, make art, or just dip their toes into any of it — together in a sacred and relaxing place, mix in vast vistas of the lake and surrounding hills, add excellent food and deep sleep, and let everyone find their own best answers.
  2. Rest: There’s something about being away from home, surrounded by water and prairie, big skies and gentle breezes (with an occasional good rain) that makes for good sleeping weather. Plus, we hold open afternoons for people to create, wander, explore, collaborate, or take naps.
  3. Perspective: We all need to step out from the ordinary noise of our daily lives and see who we are now and what we have to say to ourselves and others from a new vantage point.
  4. Courage: Brave Voice is a courageous place where people are daring to create and listen to their hearts’ songs. Just being in that space give us back more of ourselves.
  5. Community: People make friendships, sometimes even for life, here. We witness each other, listen carefully, and find clarity and connection in community.
  6. Music: We sing, we’re sung to, we listen, we explore (no one has to sing alone or even sing at all), and oh, Kelley Hunt does a private concert for us!
  7. Writing: Writing is a way of knowing what’s true for us and what no longer holds water. In listening to each other, we find our way to our own strongest words and truest stories. I also do a private reading just for us.
  8. Surprises: The happy kind of surprises abound — maybe fresh pineapple or a new song (even if you’ve never written one), maybe a shooting star, a wonderful dream, or a double rainbow. Expect to be surprised in good ways.
  9. You: Coming to Brave Voice brings you home to yourself even more, and hey, don’t you need a great retreat right now?
  10. Flash Sale: We’re having a special sale to make Brave Voice more affordable for you right now — Aug. 18-22. Come visit our registration page here for the details of how to save close to $100.

Find out more at our website right here.

When Everything’s Coming Up Roses: Everyday Magic, Day 1044

Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place behind a sampling from the garden

Kansas roses struggle once summer gets its heat on, but I have found a land where everything is coming up roses: the Pacific Northwest. We were there for Aunt Wilma’s memorial and the family reunion around that gathering, which also included a very special rose garden made from something and by someone Wilma loved very much.

But first, the number of roses in the western Oregon and Washington was dizzying and surely in infinite multiples to rose meccas here. Walking around our friends Carl and Sara’s Vancouver, WA neighborhood, I was dazzled by bundles of blossoms, some tumbling over themselves in excitement and others just standing big and bold in skies that get cool and mildly breezy most evenings. We went to the Oregon Garden, a botanical wonderland of winding gardens mazing together and apart, including a beautiful rose garden. We waltzed to live music in the Portland Peninsula rose garden. Everywhere, there was something to stop me in my tracks and made me bend over carefully, checking to make sure there’s not a bee in the center of the rose before I inhaled it.

The Julia Child rose from Sara’s garden

But the highlight of the rose tour bloomed in an Auburn, WA backyard, where our cousin’s son Justin, in honor of Wilma, who is his grandmother, created a magical memorial. He finished the Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place just in time to invite all of us to enjoy the three concentric circles of the roses Wilma chose, tended, and loved. The roses were part of a garden she organized volunteers to care for at the retirement facility where she and her late husband Ron lived. The garden was also in the pathway of an oncoming bulldozer that was to way for more housing, so Justin, 21 years old and balancing his college studies, jumped in. With help from his family, he transported a whole lot of big, mature, and sometimes very heavy rose bushes.

The garden circles around a brand-new gazebo Justin and his dad Jim built, finding and rehabilitating some old wood from here and there and finishing it all just in the nick of time for us to step into, shoes off because the polyurethane was still drying, and slide across. All in all, it’s a gorgeous tribute made of wood and flowers, sweat and memory, to his grandparents.

Justin with one of his grandmother’s favorites

Some of the rose bushes were way taller than me and almost all were thriving like nobody’s business (only one was sluggish but it looks like it’s likely to snap to greater life in the future). Justin created a detailed chart of what’s where and did many hours of research to figure out what each rose was. But whatever each was called, what grabbed me most was the scent, some smelling exactly like rose essential oil and others vastly richer and more intoxicating. I made it my business to smell a flower from each of the 70 bushes.

All those roses took me back to my own grandfather, my dad’s dad who loved growing roses in the tiny backyard of his rental house in Brooklyn. I remember leaning into each flower as a kid, renewed by what I seeing and smelling. While I’m a lover of many flowers, I do have some I especially adore, especially a wildly fragrant rose (or lilac or lily-of-the-valley or iris or hyacinth), which brings me backwards and forward in time at once.

We wandered the rose garden in that twilight time for a long stretch, marveling at them as a rainbowy hot air balloon sailed over. I imagined Wilma walking this garden, so delighted to see her babies — human and otherwise — flourishing, and as nightfall came, we walked the paths between the roses, scattering some of Wilma and Ron’s ashes into the roots of each rose bush.

So that’s what went down with all these roses rising up, reminding me how much a flower can tell the story of a legacy of love and care.

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