“Life Will Break You”: A Year Since Everything Changed: Everyday Magic, Day 1031

Louise Erdrich, from her novel The Painted Drum

“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.

I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.

But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.

But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.

On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.

P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.

Birds Are the Best Thing About Winter: Everyday Magic, Day 1029

Female cardinal — photo by Len Scotto

When the temperature gets near or below zero, survival comes into sharper focus for us all, but so do birds and their survival without the benefit of fleece and indoor nesting.

So we feed the birds, but just as much for us as for them, sometimes hourly re-lining the deck ledge with a thick line of bird seed, emphasis on the black sunflower seeds they love so much. This smorsgasbord draws a constant wave of birds, dining side by side with little fuss, even when a squirrel joins the mix. The only thing that disrupts the long counter in Bird Diner is Mr. Bluejay, who freaks everyone the hell away until he gets his meal and departs.

I came to loving birds later in life, not really noticing them much until I had breast cancer in 2002. I quickly found out — and this has been verified so many times in facilitating writing classes for people living with serious illness — that there’s something about struggling through hard-nosed chemo, radiation, surgery recovery, or drug side effects that point our faces toward the window. For one thing, many of us in the throes of such grappling don’t have the bandwidth to do more that stare at walls, ceilings, and even better, windows. We slow way down, and voila! Were there always so many birds?

White-throated sparrow — photo by Len Scotto

When I was tunneling through some dark stretches of eye cancer, it was birds again, but in a different way. Light hurt my right eye for so long (just months, but felt longer) that I would lie on the porch futon with a towel over my eyes and listen. Birdsong and calls, whether for food or love or territory, engulfed me. It was sometimes like being rocked in a cradle of bird sound, each sway showing me how vibrant and beautiful the world was even if I couldn’t look directly at it.

This winter I realized how much bird gazing is the best part of my day. When they meander off to roost in late afternoon, I feel sad, but when I wake up the next morning, the birds are the first view I most want (well, first checking my email on my phone, but still….). Muriel Rukeyser wrote in one of her poem, “The universe is made of turtles/ not of atoms,” and while that’s clearly true, I think a lot of those stories are made of birds, especially the winter, illness or other-time-sequestered-away (hello, pandemic!) stories.

Flicker (yes, part of the woodpecker family) — photo by Len Scotto

Like right now: there’s two male cardinals, a female cardinal alighting to grab a sunflower seed, then flitting back to the branch. There’s always juncos, sometimes chickadees, an occasional goldfinch, many an adorable titmouse, little brindled sparrows, and the splendor of the flicker and the red-bellied woodpecker dazzling me, especially on overcast days. There’s the crow, solitary on the deck railing, tilting her head to the left to tune into the secrets of what gleams. Soon they should be bluebirds, my favorite of bird nirvana. And all the birds are puffed out to maximum birdness, warming themselves in their balls of feather.

Miyako the cat and I watch from the blind of the windows, me puffed out myself in layers of clothes, and her doing that crazy-cat chittering that’s almost as entertaining as the birds. Our eyes follow them away, then back down, a united states of birdland here for us all.

Thank you so much to a spectacular photographer and dear friend, Len Scotto, for these amazements in photography.

What’s In Your Mystery Box?: Everyday Magic , Day 1027

My mom gave me funds for my 60th birthday, which I instantly converted into another kind of mystery box, found at the Bizarre Bazaar

On the phone with my cousin Richard last night, we talked about how life gives you materials you don’t often sign up for, then you have to figure out what to do with them. “A rabbi once told me we all get a mystery box,” he said, and my mind lit up: that’s exactly it.

My mystery box has all kinds of challenges and blessings in it that are so far beyond my imagination, yearnings, and beliefs of where I would land in this life. The little Brooklyn girl who loved to draw pictures all day, and when tucked in her bed as a New Jersey teen, would listen to Cousin Brucie play the hits on her transistor radio could never have fathomed her life decades later.

My mystery box, as I opened it to another layer, then another, revealed two bouts of cancer, one exceedingly common and the other exceedingly rare, but also three (how did that happen? Well, we know, but still….) children of passionate intelligence and daring creativity. As someone always as in love with places as with people, who knew I would end up marrying a fifth-generation Kansas, and after decades of trying to find a way, actually buying the family land to continue stewarding and protecting? Likewise, I couldn’t have known that the writing and good witnesses at crucial times that would save my life would help me pay it forward.

But perhaps it’s not accurate to say we open the box ourselves: the mystery box opens us. I used to joke with my friend Bobby that we’re here to break our hearts open, and the older I get, the truer it is. Yet what increases our ability to love — as long as we don’t choose the rabbit hole of hardening our hearts and shutting ourselves away from life — also shows us just how fragile, vulnerable, and powerful we are. I hear this in Kelley Hunt’s “That’s What Makes You Strong,” a great Jesse Winchester song. The more we dance with the contents of the mystery box, the greater our capacity to feel life with all its heartbreak hills, annoyance potholes, mercy daybreaks, and glory vistas.

I also love the idea of the mystery box because I collect wooden boxes. Why? I don’t know, but I adore the smell of cedar and other woods, the beauty of a well-crafted box, and idea that little treasures can be gathered and held in such art. Our mystery boxes collect us too, gathering all the parts of us that seemed separate (but truly aren’t) over time so that we can discover more of the whole cloth of our lives.

What we find or what finds us in our mystery box is sometimes terrifying, often beautiful, and always ours. What’s in your mystery box?

When I Don’t Know What Else to Do: Everyday Magic, Day 1025

Since the riots of hatred last Wednesday, it’s hard to get my bearings. Like most of the people I know, the word “unbelievable!” peppers many conversations which are often about despair, fear, insomnia, and especially how little we can do to change this situation at the moment. This is not to say that we-the-people don’t have some power and agency overall, but between now and the inauguration, there’s just a fog of foreboding and uncertainty.

What do when I don’t know what to do? Something/Anything, to riff off the name of one of Todd Rundgren’s old albums. I broke through some of the stagnancy Sunday by cutting colorful things up or out: fabric and vegetables. Finding a quilt pattern involving 128 triangles helped tremendously even if the pre-requisite was searching through my fabric collection, then ironing a whole lot of things. Slicing and dicing cauliflower, pears, potatoes, onions (for a great soup recipe), apples for an apple crisp, and a mess of tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, and zucchini (for a veggie lasagna) helped enormously.

Yesterday, I played with color in designing some memes for upcoming workshops, and later, I immersed myself in the chilly sunset sky by walking the wetlands with Kris. I remember how, in much more dire circumstances depicted in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (also one of the best books in the universe), Baby Suggs — anything but a baby and dying — could only find meaning in the colors of her quilt. “Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green” is a line that stays with me.

Right now though, I look across my room, thankful for the blues and golds in the quilt on the bed and the sky-filled windows. And that’s enough.

Holding On For a Little More Light: Everyday Magic, Day 1022

A lot of us need more light now or as soon as possible. With the pandemic numbers rising and so many of us connected to people sick or struggling to survive or already gone, it’s a deep-dish dark time in moments that, depending on your situation, may be sad punctuations to the day or whole weeks or months long.

Then there’s the rest of our lives. In the last week, we’ve been through a lot that requires patience, self-control (although not around big-ass casseroles, like the one in the oven now), and a little more faith that we can always muster. I know of some friends facing some of the hardest week in what seems like years (me too!), and others struggling to figure out next steps across a frozen field, shrouded in heavy fog, of despair or fear. It’s also a death anniversary for us of one of the lights of our life, our friend Jerry, who left us 12/13/14 (an easy date of a hard loss).

As Ken and I walked across the actual field for just 15 minutes because it was cold, I rejoiced in the stretch of sun finally back out after a tunnel of gloomy skies. I reminded myself that in a bit over a week, the light returns another way: the solstice tips us back to an inch, a minute, a long breath more of light each day.

But meanwhile, here’s to the hurt of needing more light, and here’s to our beautiful, messy, and Wabi Sabi* resilience as we get from here to there.

*Wabi Sabi is the Japanese term for something like the perfection in imperfect, the natural state of things to die and be beautiful at once (like decaying tea houses in the country), and the uncertainty and wonder of life altogether.