Years ago when I was in the oncology center waiting room for an appointment following my bout of breast cancer, two women made me cry. One was in her 70s, and the other was her middle-aged daughter, both clinging to each other and having a hard time answering questions because of their sobbing while they checked in to hear test results. I was soon called back to see my oncologist, and so were they, but I saw them again on my way out, both of them laughing and crying at once, still clinging to each other. A nurse who escorted them out hugged them and said, “I’m so happy for you.” They arrived in terror and left in joy.
I know those feelings pretty well. Since those dreaded “you-have-cancer” words first entered my orbit in 2002, I’ve been on the scan bus, making more stops than I would have expected because I was also diagnosed with BRCA 1, one of the breast cancer mutations. Add to this that my father and uncle died young from pancreatic cancer, and MRIs entered the mix. Then there was the ocular melanoma last summer, and now, post-treatment for that, I’m a regular in our hospital’s radiology department.
Last Friday, I had my second seasonal (every three months for many years) scan to make sure what was in my eye didn’t travel. Because this type of cancer, when it has legs (and I pray it doesn’t), usually shows up in the liver and sometimes in the lungs, I had an abdominal and chest CT scan (used to be called a CAT scan, although there’s little purring, involved), and some blood work. I was scared beforehand but not as scared as the first one last fall, and far less scared than the parade of of scans last spring. In the week before the scan, I had a few seconds here and there of full-body terror that makes me feel like I’m both thoroughly embodied in terror and also on the outside looking in. But I’ve learned fear storms are just another kind of weather that moves through: keep breathing, drink some water, tell yourself it’s just a strong emotion that will ebb, and eventually, the sky clears.
Getting scans to see what’s happening under the hood is something many of us endure. I know so many people living with and recovering from many health challenges, all of which require showing up on time, sometimes drinking strange fluids or having dye injected into us, and then being ferried in and out of large, sometimes (in the case of MRIs) outrageously loudly-clanging machines. There’s also other tests of trepidation many of us go through that show whether we’re in the money or up shit’s creek. My scans and health history aren’t more challenging than what many others go through, and I have a lot of “there but for the grace go I” moments when I hear of friends who are facing degenerative diseases, chronic pain, and terminal diagnoses (although life is such a diagnosis). Then again, comparison of our learning edges and life challenges is a futile activity.
I’ve learned and am continually learning to stay calmer, working through my phobia of being restricted in the grips of a machine. Last summer, my wonderful oncologist Sherri Soule gave me a prescription for a lot of Lorazepam, a low dose anti-anxiety drug. I wondered why she prescribed so many, but now that I’ve had that refilled twice, I know sometimes we need a little pharmaceutical help. I also have a GABA spray I highly recommend for moments that activate our fight or flight response. Like many of us, I practice slow, deep breathing, listen to music (especially during scans, and I’m sure Enya was invented for MRIs), and bring along Ken and sometimes other support people.
For this last scan, I found extra support in the technician, a lovely woman named Melissa who remembered me from last time, talked over the singers I was listening to my iPhone during the scan (Brandi Carlile and Carrie Newcomer), and treated me with such energetic tenderness that she put me at ease. Then there was the wait for results, best spent not speculating — we distracted ourselves by getting brunch at Wheatfields, reveling in the glory of bread. I’m so grateful that my oncologist doesn’t play the phone game (a call if all is fine or a “you need to come in right away” if it’s not) and meets with me a few hours after the scans. As she came in smiling, telling me all was well, to my surprise I started crying, but that’s pretty common with scans.
Each scan is another tumble with seeing how mortal we are. Recently, my therapist and I realized that it wasn’t the scanning machines — CT scans, MRIs, and Pet scans — that freaked me out as much as what the scans might read. At the same time, the whole process makes me fall more in love with this life, enough to spend a long and healthy lifetime grappling with what I keep discovering here.
That’s the question I kept asking myself as I replayed “Dust in the Wind” on my quickly-wearing-out but relatively new copy of Point of Know Return. I was a 17-year-old Jersey girl, commuting two years each way because of a wacky bus schedule from my home in Manalapan to Brookdale Community College, just 10 miles away. There, I studied English (quelle surpris!), but mostly, poetry, music, and several guys at our school radio station, WBJB, where we often played Kansas music in between jazz, folk, showtunes, opera, and rock because we had a progressive format (mixing any and everything). Oh, and did I mention the band that put out “Dust in the Wind” was Kansas, the name of a people and place where I would find my own point of no and know return?
Yesterday, to commemorate Kansas Day (our state’s birthday), I posted a video on Facebook of another Kansas song I’ve loved since I was a teen, “Carry On, My Wayward Son.” Stephanie commented on how much she loved “Dust in the Wind,” as did Betsy, all of us teenage girls listening to it in our rooms or cars over and over. When sleep eluded me last night, I started reading up on the band and its history, discovering that one of the voices I loved in both these songs was that of Robby Steinhardt (also the classically-trained violinist), from Lawrence, and hey, both songs were written by Kerry Livgrin, who still lives in Topeka. Livgrin said “Carry On, My Wayward Son” come through him in a flash, and “Dust in the Wind” started out as a guitar exercise he created, then his wife suggested he add some lyrics.
As I shimmeyed down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I learned there were several early version of the band, Kansas 1 and Kansas 2, plus in-and-out mergings with bands named Saratoga and White Clover (eventually a band called Proto-Kaw also). What’s more, one of the main guys in Kansas 1 was Don Montre, the twin brother of a dear friend, the late Weedle Caviness. Just as I was reading this, Weedle’s husband Paul, having seen my Kansas post, wrote me about Don (ah, the magic of Kansas or Weedle or just time itself!).
Eventually, I got to bed, telling a sleeping Ken what I had been doing, only to have him wake me up an hour later to ask if I loved “Dust in the Wind” as much as he did when it came out. Yes, of course I did, I told him. Then, hundreds of miles and dozens of years away from first hearing this song, no longer worried about if our lives are just dust in the wind (they are, but so what?), I lived out the opening lines: “I close my eyes/ Only for a moment and the moment’s gone/ All my dreams/ Pass before my eyes with curiosity.”
P.S. Check out this video of Kansas — some inexplicably dressed in the prom ruffled shirts I remember from over 40 years ago.
Each day I crave a clear view of a clear sky, but fog, snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain, and variety packs of all this percipitation at once fills the well-hidden vistas. Narrower perspectives of what’s out there push me inside and inward to what’s in here. My technicolor dreams, on the other hand, go go big screen and high speed, involving shadow cities of places I thought I knew and a conveyor belt of swiftly-changing characters, many of whom I don’t know. Then again, I’m also sleeping more, giving those dreams extra room to get wild.
Like many of us, this is the time of year I drink a lot of hot tea, craving little butter cookies to dunk in that tea, and at night, hunker down under blankets and heater cats (real cats, real warmth) surrounded by a herd of animals, now including two dogs, two kitties, and one husband. I’m more aware than usual of the air, sometimes too cold or too dry, and right now, composed of clouds too close to the ground. Last night, I dreamed I looked out a high window that doesn’t actually exist on the imaginary third or fourth story of my house to see the ground, faded into brownish green with small patches of snow, then when I looked again, greening up like it will do in a few months. I looked away and saw a blossoming tree, something like a magnolia, but when I woke into darkness and chill, such a tree seemed preposterous.
Because the scene is so monochromatic, I’m drawn more to black and white movies, last night Mr Deeds Goes to Town, which also has plenty of foggy, soft-edges scenes that even lower the volume of New York City 1930’s lights and action to a whisper. I’m hugging the edge of home more too, forgoing leaving the house with its heart-rushing foray down a drive composed of layered snow, frozen rain, sleet, and more rain. Instead, I bake or ignore the urge to bake, plan sewing projects, talk with friends on the phone, and make a whole lot of soup.
But that’s all for the good because in the cave of winter we’re meant to do some hibernation. Although it doesn’t feel like it, spring will come soon enough with its fast-moving flowers. Now is the time is quiet down and listen to the space between not enough and too much. That’s more than enough.
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.
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