Amazingly enough, we are arrived at the last day of March, a month that has lasted at least 1,283 days in fear, panic, and dread years. But here we are, and as April — what T.S. once called the cruelest month — approaches, we know we’re in for a far longer, harder, and more unimaginable month with the virus likely peaking over the coming weeks.
Walking — our new and only in-person social life of late — with our son Forest through East Lawrence the other day, I asked him what the word was for the world looking one way while it’s also a drastically different world at the same time. We were ambling past heartbreakingly beautiful manifestations of spring — magnolia trees loaded with pink boats of blossom, tender green just-leafing trees, and a gala of daffodils, hyacinths, and even some early scout redbuds showing off like the main attractions they are. Forest thought for a moment, then said the word I was looking for was dissonance, that anxious tension from two disharmonious elements.
The numbers of people with Covid-19 are rising exponentially, more and more people are dying, medical supplies are running out, and the map in the New York Times I check (with bated breath) every few days looks like the country has a bad case of chicken pox and rampant poison ivy all at once. At the same time, the birds are singing in overlapping and ever-shifting harmonies even if some of their song is about holding onto their territory and driving out invaders. The peach tree in our backyard blossoms in its usual aching beauty. Spring seems far more beautiful and far-reaching in its volume, and even the soft glow of the air, maybe because I’m paying more attention or, more than ever, this is the renewal I need each morning when I wake up, to paraphrase Rumi, scared and empty.
We’re in a time when there’s likely not enough anti-anxiety meds or slow meditative breaths to lift any aware person completely out of feeling some of the vast uncertainty, fear, and suffering happening throughout the world. There’s obviously only vague maps and best-guessed timelines ahead, although we humans cling to patterns and answers. Yet when I pass people on walks in the wetlands or through various neighborhoods, all us carefully keeping at least six feet apart, there’s a tenderness, even among strangers. “Hey, how are you doing?” people will call out, or they’ll just smile and send wishes to stay healthy.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability,” Brene Brown tells us. We are growing our courage to get out of bed, unsure what bad news will land today and what beloveds of ours (including ourselves) might be threatened, hurt, or just very afraid. We find our feet and begin walking through our days, our hearts open and trembling like the vulnerable and courageous creatures we are.
So it’s step by step — the living room to the kitchen, the front door to the backyard, the trail a few feet or miles away, and of course, wandering through what fear, foreboding, or other difficult emotions grip us while we make a meatloaf, pet the dog, call our mother or child or friend, to try to fall asleep. It’s movie by movie, dishwashing by dishwashing, laundry by laundry. But wherever we are in our internal landscape, we can always take the next baby step with courage, vulnerability, and tenderness.
For the month of April, I’m so happy to share with you A Prompt A Day, a daily writing prompt (poems, film clips, songs, and more), plus an optional penpal matching service. It’s offered on a donation basis — for free or up to $30. More here.
It only took a few seconds of looking at the NYTimes map of the pandemic Saturday night for me to start hyper-ventilating and crying. At that moment, I didn’t yet realize I needed perspective, big-picture, deep-time, and wide-angle views to not just calm myself at the moment, but forge a more informed path forward. After taking a Lorazepam, drinking some water, vowing to self-isolate from regular bouts of Coronavirus news, and breathing slowly, I called my friends Judy and Denise. Both poets with miles of life experience winding through great wisdom, they gave me the gift of such perspective.
“I think of us as part of the herd, and now we have to do what keeps the herd healthy,” Judy said. Although we’re socially distancing, we’re actually coming together to support our collective health and life, giving each other a wide berth to ensure our safety as we roam the sometimes narrow trails of our homes and yards. I think of a Washington Post article I saw last week about staying home and apart not primarily to protect ourselves (although of course that’s essential) but to protect others who might be far more vulnerable that we are to Corvid-19.
“Think of what our parents and grandparents went through with World War II and the 1918 flu pandemic, which started in Kansas” Denise reminded me. We talked about the very long arm of what we know of human history — all the wars, pandemics, and natural disasters that patchwork a large story of perseverance. “Humans are wired and evolved for resilience,” Denise added.
Since then, I’ve been pondering the histories of my ancestors — the pogroms and the Holocaust that killed many but not all, the wars that turned daily existence into insecurities of scarcity, danger, and loss — as well as the generational stories of others I know. What was it like for one of my German friends who was born in early 1945, just in time to be piled in a wagon with many household items, because her family’s home was now destroyed? How was it for my grandparents to live through WWII, even though they were safe in Brooklyn, not knowing if Hitler would take over the world or if their relatives back in Poland, Russia, and Romania would survive (they largely wouldn’t)? During the 1918 pandemic — one the most deadly pandemic in human history — was it so much like living in a war zone that many were enveloped in fight/flight mode for months?
Denise and Judy reminded me that most generations have to deal with something overwhelmingly threatening; this is ours. Yes, it has its distinctions just like any disaster, but there’s a lot in common with past threats. We don’t know when it will end, who it will sicken or kill, what our economy will look like, how the herd will change, and then there are dozens of ifs that can wake up a person at 5 a.m. We don’t have control over ending this quickly, although we can do our part to hasten that ending. We don’t know a thousand and one things about the time ahead or the time we’re in right now.
I don’t mean to minimize suffering, death, mourning, and terror around the world. At the same time, despite this age of collective anxiety and fear (surely bred into our bones from past generational traumas, and reinforced by viral wolves at real doors), we go on like so many other species still vital. Just like the herd of shy deer edging the woods where I live, the squirrel families racing across the roof, the crows landing in the field to find something tasty or shiny.
We have history on our side and the herd to tend, so tend it we will, extending care and affection (without touching), attention and intention toward those we love and those we don’t even know, guided by what’s imprinted in our DNA about the herd and history. I leave you with this call to courage and love from Valerie Kaur of The Revolutionary Love Project: “This pandemic will test who we are, as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self interest? Or will be double down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? I believe this is is a time to love without limit.”
Dear Me (and Dear Me!),
I know you’re crazy-scared about the coronavirus. How could anyone paying attention not be when the closings and cancellations fall like dominos. Just in the last day, many universities in your state cancelled in-person classes, events on your calendar vanished in a wisp of precaution, and your synagogue called off services. In an age when even a minyan (Jewish term for the minimum number of Jews to be present for formal worship) is a risk, it’s hard to turn away from the ticker tape parade across the frontal lobe that keeps blaring, “The world is ending!”
Actually, it’s just the world we know in the ways we expect it to be based on how it’s been rollicking along for a while. Your son was videoconferencing with his friend in China last night, who lives one province over from the virus epicenter, and they were laughing and catching up. A Facebook friend in Italy posts about the beyond-imagined new normal and how they’re hanging out at home, watching movies, making food, taking short walks, and worrying about loved ones with the virus.
Moreover, this moment — while certainly unique in most or all of our lifetimes — is another one of many ongoing overwhelming threats to human life and activity along with climate change, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and so much more. While we’re in an expansive rift, let us also mention the reality that we are all exceedingly mortal and can control only a fraction of what happens to us.
Telescoping in to what might be in your purview, it’s not a good time to think about your retirement investments, and yes, some of your gigs are called off, but please don’t go down this rabbit hole because you, along with a lot of people you know, are likely going to be fine and will have the resources you need. You have good health insurance, you live in a lovely home in the country with fields and woods to traverse, and you can afford to stock the pantry. You’re also abundantly outfitted with books, art supplies, sewing projects, movies, and animals. Oh, and you have the phone and internet, and already, you’ve been visiting deeply with lots of friends more even if the conversation is often punctuated with “I’m scared too.”
So many people, close around you and scattered around the world, do not have such a safety net. You can pray, send good wishes, and contribute money here and there, but consider what else you can do. Your son’s idea to contact neighbors and make connections so that, as needed, we can run errands for each other is a good one. It’s also important to contemplate little, quiet fundraising efforts for people who will lose most of their income. What else can you do? As for everything and especially this thing, more will be revealed in time.
So why, little trembling darling, are you still so anxious? Of course, telling yourself you need to be less freaked out right now so that your emotions don’t diminish your immune system isn’t going to get you anywhere either. Panicky urgency should not be given the keys to drive the bus right now. Instead, I want you to consider this:
- Right now, no one you know is sick and suffering with this virus, and while that’s likely to change, it would do you good to dwell in the present. Speaking of which….
- Right now, the pale blue-to-white sky is as soft as the warming air. The peas and carrots you planted in the garden on Sunday are germinating in that rich dirt after rain saturated everything. The fields are just on the verge of going from washed out tans and browns to scribbled-in exuberant green.
- Right now, you have a cat asleep near your feet and a dog asleep (although looking at your quizzically) by your side. They fear nothing.
- Right now, there are deer in the woods walking gingerly up the hill. There are happy rabbits regrouping with their buddies for the spring. Hibernating turtles stir underground. Early spring birds sing across the airwaves. Here we are in an unfurling world beyond the reach of headlines and soundbites.
- What we worry about happening usually bears no resemblance to what happens. If and when you or loved ones get sick, as a zen master pal of yours said today, you’ll be okay even if you can’t imagine what okay is or how it might play out. Or you’ll not be okay, and that’s okay too.
- Most of all, know that while you can’t do anything to stop a viral pandemic, you can do something about your airspace in the pandemic of fear. When you get scared, get off your bum, walk outside, and take a long, deep breath. Go hang some laundry and feel the wind lifting and dropping all around us. The world is infinitely larger than the scaredy cat meowing inside you. Take another breath. Then another.
“It’s like an animal daycare here,” said my friend Laurie, here to give Shay some doggy acupuncture today. She was right, and with two dogs and two cats, it’s also a canine and feline exercise and mindfulness training program, continually interrupting what I thought I was doing to point my attention toward a higher power. Never underestimate the call of the dogs to go outside. Add in the cats, whose needs must be met whenever they arise because: cats, and you can imagine how much practice I get sitting down only to stand up again.
It wasn’t always like this. For years, we had a constant balance of three animals, mostly two cats and a dog, and occasionally a cat and two dogs. But the addition of Moxie — a border collie with a bit of rat terrier in her — to our trio of Shay the dog, and Miyako and Sidney Iowa, the cats — the balance has shifted even more from the two-leggeds to the four-leggeds. Working at home means I’m in the thick of Animal Kingdom much of the time, and wherever I am in or around the house, they must be also. I could be in my favorite chair, laptop fully engaged, or at the kitchen table meeting with a client over Zoom, or on the front porch, talking on the phone with someone to plan an event, and I will be interrupted. Repeatedly. Just about everyone I work with has heard barking, meowing, and doors opening and closing often.
The animals must of course situate themselves around each other and me. If I pace as I talk on the phone, sometime I’m prone to do, the animals must pace too. If I head to the kitchen to make tea, there they are, herding me toward the stove (particularly the border collie, who can’t help herself). If I need to concentrate — especially in the middle of composing a sentence, revising a poem, or editing a manuscript — someone will leap, hiss, yelp, or knock over something loud just as I’m struggling the most to find the right word or punctuation.
At the same time, I really like being part of a pack. Besides never feeling alone, the mammals do the same thing for me as the meditation bell I downloaded onto my computer, which rings every hour: they stop me in my tracks. I more or less have to look up from the bottom of my rabbit hole to see what else the world holds: three crows balancing on a branch of Cottonwood Mel, the wind picking up and clouds filling in, and a big, lazy cat in the window sill who wants back in. I use the meditation bell to make myself pause for five minutes, breathe and meditate, and check in with how I’m feeling and navigating.
Mostly, I discover that whatever I thought was set in stone or anxiously urgent actually isn’t. Instead, there’s fur-covered faces staring intently in my direction, saying, wake up as well as get off your ass and feed us! I do because I don’t want to be in the doghouse with these animals or with my own habitual deadends. Besides, there’s a lot to learn from surrendering to a higher power even if it does take the form of muddy paw tracks all over the house.
The tagline for the film Big Sonia is “Holocaust survivor. Grandma. Diva.” True that, but she’s also quite the Holocaust scholar, fluent in a dizzying amount of books, films, articles, and other accounts of what Sonia repeatedly and accurately calls “unbelievable.” Like many of us but even more so, Sonia Warshawski has been grappling with all the big questions regarding the Holocaust for a long time: How and why could this happen? What does it mean? Who embodied the worst of humanity and the best? What does not never forgetting mean in our everyday lives?
When it comes to the question of how someone survives the Holocaust and makes a new life in a new land after losing most of her family and finding her home community in Poland what she called “a ghost town,” Sonia embodies the answers. I got to witness this first-hand when she showed up as a student in my Osher class, “Triumph and Terror: How Two Men Survived Nazi Horrors.” The three-session class in Prairie Village, KS, based on my book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, focuses on both the Holocaust and Polish and Jewish resistance movements. While I usually mainly explore this history through the lives of Lou (a Holocaust survivor) and Jarek (a Polish resistance fighter) who met in Lawrence, Kansas and became best friends, Sonia brought us a new dimension (through her experience and scholarship) of the Holocaust and the Jewish Resistance.
Bedecked in a leopard print coat and dressed to the nines, and well under five feet tall, Sonia is a 94-year-old force of nature. She’s also a vital voice in the wilderness calling for never forgetting or forgiving, but always moving ahead with love. She sat in the front row, and within a short time, I was handing her the mic at regular intervals because of what she had to say as an eye witness, survivor, and fierce advocate for Holocaust education.
Sonia was born in Międzyrzec, Poland, actually just down the road from where some of Jarek’s family lived in Biala Podlaska. She was only 17 years old when the Nazis invaded the ghetto where she was hiding with her family, forcing her and her mother to go to Majdanek, one of the death camps. Big Sonia, the award-winning and spectacular film directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday uses animated illustrations, based on Sonia’s artful doodling, to show the excruciating moment her mother was ripped away from her to go to the gas chamber. Only Sonia and her younger sister, against all odds, survived, along with a small orange scarf from her mother that Sonia keeps in a plastic baggie under her pillow.
Sonia spoke eloquently about the role of the partisans (the Jewish resistance) helping her younger sister, who largely hid in the woods during the war, make it through these terrible years. She also told us of the times she was beaten, just as Bergen-Belsen was being liberated (after she spent startling time at Auschwitz-Birkenau), how she was shot. She hid among fallen bodies, endured terrible beatings, and even had to spread the ashes (some still holding bits of human bones) on fields as fertilizer. When I told the story of Lou’s needle in the bone — how he landed on something sharp one night but had to endure it, only to find out years later that he had a needle embedded in his heel — she nodded knowingly at me. She has carried her own needle in the bone for close to 80 years, and like Lou and many other survivors, she also found the strength and courage to start a new life, coming to Kansas City with her husband and their family-in-process in 1948.
It was one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to write about the stories of Lou and Jarek, then to find this is a gift that keeps moving, bringing me into deep and necessary conversation with others about the big questions at the heart of what it can mean to be human, at our best and at our worst. How do people go on after facing such annihilating forces and losing almost everything, everywhere, and everyone they know and love? Sonia answered this through the warmth, intelligence, and presence shone through all she shared with unflinching honesty.
Sonia also reminds us — and I get the sense she does this whether she’s talking to high school students, lifers in prison, or customers who come to the tailor shop her husband started that she still runs — about the importance of Tikkun Olam, repairing the broken world. She sees what’s happening clearly, particularly the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers, and as she told the New York Times a few years ago, “….it’s a terrible hate what’s going on now. I hope that my speaking is a way of starting to repair the world, to change the direction for us.” May it be so, and may we all find the courage to repair the world however we can.
For more on Sonia, please see Big Sonia, now streaming on Amazon, read the New York Times article -“‘But It’s a Terrible Hate Going On Now‘” about her, listen to “A Conversation with Sonia Warshawski” hosted by the Kansas City Public Library. and watch her testimony with the Midwest Center for the Holocaust. You can also see my book Needle in the Bone here, and check out Jarek’s new book, Dance With Death: A Holistic View of Saving Polish Jews During the Holocaust. Top photo by Ken Lassman, bottom photo from Friends of Osher.
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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