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Doe a Deer Lives to See Another Day: Everyday Magic, Day 1047

Some of the does last year

This is a story of what can happen when you ask the birds to talk to the deer as well as how conversations in our minds can seem like they really occurred. It also has something to do with how you can take the girl out of Brooklyn and New Jersey, but you can’t easily take the Bambi fantasies of magical deer out of her so easily.

So on Monday morning, when a hunter Ken made arrangements showed up to set up a blind, all was not right in the disheveled kingdom of our home. Ken had talked about this extensively with Daniel, a friend of ours who’s an expert on the negative impact deer can have on plant life, and in his mind with me. Obviously, I was cordial and agreeable in his head. In real life, not so much. I was flipped out and angry, and untangling the mess entailed some sadness, confusion, chaos, a little crying, a little yelling, and a few “what the fucks.” But Ken assured me that the hunter would only come for one day, on Tuesday. He would only shoot one doe (this is doe hunting season) — no bucks, no fawns — and also, Ken had spoken to the birds about the situation and asked them to tell the does that if they weren’t down for this, they should lie low.

I had been speaking to the birds and the deer myself for years, often telling them (in my mind at least) that they were safe here, that this land was a sanctuary for them, that we would protect them, and hey, deer, if you need to eat some of the garden, so be it. Of course, it wasn’t just the garden: the deer had ripping out some of the oak trees Ken had been nurturing from acorns for years to bring back the oak-hickory roots of the woods. They had wreaked havoc on fruit trees in our yard too, and although Ken had taken pains to protect all these trees as best he could, it is true that the deer population is overly healthy here.

The hunter showed up very early Tuesday morning to sit up a tree behind a blind in cold and biting wind. After two hours, he had only seen five bucks, who leisurely wandered by on their way to shoot the breeze over coffee. He left for a while to warm up, planning to come up about 2:30 p.m. Right before he pulled in, I went outside and had a talk with the birds myself: “Please tell the does to get the hell out of here for a while and also that I love them.” The bad-ass chickadees and juncos stared at me briefly before going back to their sunflower seeds. The blue jays, crows, cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers skittered away, but I know they heard me. I went inside the house to work, hoping not to see Ken helping the hunter carry out a dead doe.

Turns out that this time the hunter only saw some fawns, laughing at the base of the tree where he waited, when really they should have been at school at the time. They hung out for a while, but amazingly enough — although there are ample does on this land — none opted to take one for the team.

Ken also sent me a passage from botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s superb book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, about “the honorable harvest.” I also believe in and support sustainable hunting and being mindful of the balance of a particular ecosystem as part and parcel of stewarding the land. At least in theory…..it turns out that I still have a Disney-storied deal with the deer, who have continually seem like embodiments of grace and blessings to me.

But for this year at least, no does were harmed in the making of this blog post.

P.S. Ken says to tell you that yesterday he saw three does hanging out by the driveway.

When the Real Winter Shows Up: Everyday Magic, Day 1046

In the last week, the temperatures have risen well over 70 degrees, what we expect in April and not in late December, but my dubious joy and relief from those balmy days has crashed into the reality of winter, which is a relief. It’s also a drudgery.

Today, it’s overcast, and the world is pewter-cold. Yet I don’t feel that strange panorama of emotion (I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m freaked out, I’m delighted) over climate-change-heated winters that feel like springs. I’m guessing this December, at least in our climes, will be the hottest December on record. So when the temperatures plummeted, it felt right to feel too cold and somewhat miserable because that’s part of what winter is….or at least, what it used to be.

Trying to change radio stations in a freezing car, not yet heating itself up, in wool gloves? Check. Realizing I should have worn my Cuddl Duds (very soft long underwear) under my clothes? Yup. Drinking hot tea instead of iced tea and really enjoying the heat coming off my oatmeal? Yes. Looking outside and feeling as gray and worn as the sky? You bet!

But there’s also a return today of winter wildlife I haven’t seen much of until now, a few days before the end of this strange year. This morning, I was distracted while on the phone by an enormous bird on the cedars outside. After taking some photos and focusing in, we found it was an immature red-tailed hawk, puffed out to maximum plumage. Looking out the bedroom window just now, I saw a family of deer about ten feet away, not yet cold and hungry enough to gingerly wander up to the bird feeder, but closer than they were in our too-warm days.

This is the kind of winter day that immerses us in a charcoal tunnel, but there’s something familiar, expected, normal even about long stretches of cold when we find ourselves thinking 30 degrees isn’t so cold because we’ve just passed through an arctic blast. There’s something right about winter being uncomfortable, and if I haven’t dressed warmly enough, painful and certainly dangerous. Winter shouldn’t be something to be trifled with, yet with all the days our temperatures played ball in the 50s and 60s, now a regular winter day feels odd…..and right too.

There’s no denying so much of what’s wrong these days, especially what’s in big flashing banners before us about climate change and the pandemic. So it’s good when, in the midst of both, I can step outside and feel so cold that the spring-dreaming part of me chimes in time with the wintering world.

For the Love of Mike and His Art: Everyday Magic, Day 1045

The last batch of Mike’s cards for Hanukkah, Christmas, and my birthday

For years, they arrived regularly, two or three batches every month or so that always included one for me, one for Ken, and occasionally one for our kids. Mike Watoma’s postcards, each a work of art, were a mainstay of our mailbox and of many others’ mailboxes too.

About a week ago, Mike, who was housebound in a Topeka apartment because of multiple health issues, died rather suddenly. His death didn’t just leave a hole in our mailboxes but in our hearts.

A bunch of us got to know Mike many years ago through the Kansas Area Watershed Council gatherings, which he attended with aplomb. He taught us how to make handmade drums out of wood and deer hide. He took many KAW Council photos and made gorgeous large-size portfolios, each page an dazzle of images in various shapes with such style and pizzazz that it was hard to look away. He loved the old ones and especially the young ones among us, paying special attention to our kids and encouraging their gifts and propensities.

A born artist, he was always creating, painting voraciously from a young age, making art that blew people’s minds, and keeping at it no matter what. As his health declined, perched on the top floor of his apartment building, he dedicated himself to weaving together community through his art and Facebook, where he was sure to post friendly responses and sources for everything from how to do cemetery stone rubbings to how much he loved the film “The Octopus Teacher.”

But he must have spent hours making and mailing out art. His watercolor paintings (made with watercolor pens, pen and ink and more) were miniature wonders. He had a huge supply of big and small postcard-sized watercolor paper for this art, and his mailing list was far more vast than I imagined. Since he died, I’ve heard from dozens of people on the receiving end of birthday, Christmas, tomatoes are ripe, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Halloween, crows are cool, and special occasion cards. Just this month, he wrote me, “Happy Birthday, Young Lady” as well as a Hanukkah card with a not-so-secret confession that this particular painting was one of his favorites (but shhh, don’t tell anyone).

His cheer, creativity, and big-hearted compassion covered our refrigerators and found its way into our drawers and onto our shelves around and beyond Kansas. I can’t think of a better way to share art than what Mike did, giving so many of us so many small and steady flying and postmarked treasures. Long may his flag wave in our memories and may we display his generosity, imagination, and love in our homes.

6 Ways to Determine What’s Your Work (and What’s Not): Everyday Magic, Day 1044

Sometimes my work takes me to beautiful places (like Brave Voice in the Flint Hills last September) and teams me up with marvelous collaborators (like Kathryn Lorenzen, here with me at Brave Voice)

This is a cross-post I wrote for Your Right Livelihood (scroll down for more info.). With so many people I know grappling with the same issue, I thought I’d share it here.

I love my work but I have a tendency, to paraphrase the Oklahoma song, to be a gal who can’t say no. Yet when our mouths get us into trouble, the rest of our bodies can right the wrong, and that’s what happened to me. I would take on way too much work, all of it gleaming with promise when I said yes, but by the time I was driving six hours west to do a low-paying gig or staying up late doing a rushed editing project, the shine was gone, and I was exhausted. I was also sick often, which is over-commitment does to some of us to get us to slow down.

While I wouldn’t say I’ve figured it all out, I’m well on my way as a recovering workaholic. What’s helped me immensely is constantly asking myself, “Is this mine?” For a gig worker like me, this is obviously important, but even if you have a 9-to-5 job, it can help to regularly ask yourself, when faced with optional tasks or extra assignments, if they’re yours to do.

A friend recently told me about a time she was pissed off because a co-worker got a raise for putting in ample extra hours. After she looked at the facts, she realized the raise was minimal, and her time spent with her family, relaxing at home, gardening and getting together with friends was worth far more than the extra money. So a lot of what’s mine comes down to your values and priorities.

Here are six ways I determine whether to say yes to work I wasn’t anticipating as well as work I’ve been doing for a while but am questioning. Please feel free to tweak these questions to what speaks to you, especially if your work isn’t for income but for art and/or service (in which case these questions might be even more essential to ponder). As you ask each question, score yourself from 1 (no way is this true!) to 5 (this is the Nirvana of right work for me):

  1. MINE: The biggest question of all: Is this yours to do? Is doing this part of what your life, your soul, your essence is calling you to do at this moment? Is it dyed-in-the-wool of your job description? Is it vital to your or your team’s goals.
  2. TIME: Is the timing right for doing this in your life, or will you be just recovering from doing too many other things? Do you have enough time to do it the way you want to do it? If you’re being pressured to do something in short order that would compromise the quality of the work and your health, see if you can renegotiate the deadline.
  3. TEAM: If you’re working collaboratively, will you be part of a team aligned with your own values? If you’re just showing up to do something with others, is it organized with integrity and thoughtfulness, and good communication between the organizers or supervisors and you?
  4. HEALTH: Does doing this bring you home to yourself in body and mind or further out to field? Does this compromise your physical, mental or emotional health? Does it come at a time when you’ll be more vulnerable and need to take better care of yourself (such as after organizing a big event)? Also, does this add to your health in a positive way? Or does considering it make your stomach hurt?
  5. LIVELIHOOD: Does this add to your right livelihood — the Buddhist term of making a living without doing harm (and by extension, contributing to your community and living out your life’s gifts)? Even if it doesn’t pay money, does it enhance your livelihood in other ways, or does it distract from how you live out your vocation and avocation?
  6. LOVE: Do you love doing this? Are you working with, visiting with or playing with people you love? Is it in a place you love or would love to get to know?

Now add up your scores, and aim for at least a score of 20 before you say yes. Big caveat: If you get a lower score than 20, but your heart drops because you want to do this so much, then see if you can change some of the elements involved to make it a higher score (get people to help, stay in a nice little Airbnb on the way, travel with a bag of chocolate, dark chocolate so that it’s good for your health).

*******

Learn more about the work that calls to you and the upcoming Your Right Livelihood class I’m teaching with Kathryn Lorenzen by contacting me for a free Discovery Call. You’re also invited to join Kathryn and me for Life & Livelihood Small Group Coaching, a 90-minute session 7-8:30 p.m. CST on Tues., Jan. 4. It’s only $9.99, and it allows you to ask a question about the work that intrigues or call you, plus learn more about possibilities for growing and discovering your true work. More here.

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.

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