Juxtapositions — putting like with non-like — add zip, surprise, sometimes anxiety, and often uncertainty to our lives. They’re also at the heart of what makes poetry poetry: images and language you don’t expect together that pop open new ways to see the world. So let’s just say it’s more a more-than-poetic weekend (or life).
Friday our small but loving Jewish community gathered in the cold wind to bury our beloved friend, Shirley. Although the temperatures were in the high 40s, we talked afterwards, at her home over dolmas and brownies, about how much colder it felt, but part of that was surely because Shirley’s bright, glittery, funny, and loving life was gone. It seemed wrong for us to be so alive in her home, looking at her photos and eating cookies without her.
Saturday, Ken and I drove south to the small town of Garnett, Kansas, where I did my first presentation for the DAR (yes, that DAR). In a beautiful library, in a room next to the astonishing Walker collection (an original John Steuart Curry! A Édouard Manet! — so much more in this town of just over 3,000 people), In doing a Humanities Kansas program on the Holocaust, especially focusing on the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, I discovered that the DAR chapter was deeply attuned to history and its lessons, and also to the weight of anti-Semitism and other ways humans diminish each other.
From there, there was apple pie in a German Baptist Brethren restaurant, a late-night film with Ken about art, Norway, and some lost New Yorkers finding their way, and typing this now with blue and fuschia-stained fingers because I’m in the middle of parfait-dyeing a load of socks and shirts for my kids.
I realize, in this juxtaposition of weather (dark, cold, sharp rain yesterday, and big, bright road-trip weather today) and time, that most moments of our lives are juxtapositions. We expect one thing, do one task, read about another thing, look at the window, and the kaleidoscope of like and not-like, the expected and so much of the unexpected keeps turning its wheel through our minutes and weeks.
Trying to fall asleep late last night, I felt the weight of that wheel, especially with several people I love dying in the last month juxtaposed with the twinkle-lights of the holidays everywhere, and now here we are stepping, sleeping, and waking into another time. May we continue to find meaning in what shows up, making a new pattern out of what’s already here.
It’s almost twilight, Moxie dog is sleeping in the corner, my ears are buzzing with low-hum tinnitus, and I’m about to make dinner. Looking into my house and glancing out the windows to see our warm lights reflected over the darkening sky, I realiz the best thing to write about are some of the things I’m grateful for, and just for the heck of it (and because my mom’s birthday is on Nov. 27), I’m going with the number 27. Here goes:
Abundant fresh air to breathe right now in the living room, and when I step outside, abundantly so, plus it’s about to rain, so that’s marvelous scent.
A refrigerator full of leftovers and magic ingredients for many a good meal.
Good health that allows me to live pain-free and illness-free most of the time, and today propelled me on a good walk along the levee with my friend Judy.
Astonishing friends and family, and to have gotten to the point in our lives where we end most calls or visits with, “I love you” or “I love you so much.”
The stunning photos of my late dear friend Jerry — a moon seemingly rolling down a mountain, a luminous spiderweb on a foggy morning, the clouds almost circling up — on the opposite wall talking to me as I write.
Writing in all its splendor and ordinariness, and thank god I found and was found by writing, and we continue this dance together.
The ability to sing with great joy if not great talent or range.
Books everywhere and in every room, including lately, the poetry of Sidney Wade, Diane Seuss, and Traci Brimhall, and the novels of Louise Erdrich (I’m currently re-reading all).
A particularly comfortable bed with worn-to-perfection flannel sheets and quilts I was about to make and afford to make (lots of time and $).
So many favorite things: erasable gel pens, peonies, hot French bread with Irish butter, pashima scarves when it’s just a nip cold, and laughing until we cry with loved ones.
All those friggin’ streaming services that make it possible to enjoy a comedy set in Ireland one night, episodes of Call the Midwife another, and Cameron Crowe movies.
Speaking of which, Cameron Crowe movies — Almost Famous, Elizabethtown — and also other favorite movies, especially Wings of Desire written and directed by Wim Wenders.
The cat who claims me and purrs on my chest at 2 a.m. for hours (luckily, she’s only 4.5 pounds).
This comfortable chair (straight-backed and cushioned in a satisfying floral print) I found at a consignment store in North Lawrence.
Socks. I really like socks.
The three humans I grew inside me who are now doing most interesting and sometimes surprising things in their lives, like walk 12 miles daily listening to podcasts or record layers of singing to make new music or restore neighborhood yards into mini prairies. Speaking of generations, also my mom, living her best life — Mahjong, Trivia Night and all — in Florida.
Lamps and ceiling lights emanating out that pale orange-almost-pink-white glow at different heights.
The beautiful wild in just about all forms, including all the hibernating ornate painted turtles and the just-returning winter flocks at the bird feeder and beyond, speaking of which….
Murmurations of starlings because: magic.
My iphone because it brings me voice to voice with so many people I love and does so many other tricks (weather reports! music I can listen to at the dentist! Youtubes of border collies butting a blue balloon with their heads!).
Utilities of all kinds that keep us warm, lit, and safe.
Hot oatmeal and Yorkshire Gold tea most mornings.
Sunshine streaming through the windows and pouring all over me outside many days.
The gift of interesting dreams, particularly ones in which I discover secret rooms in the house.
My husband and how much we laugh together at the kinds of things that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to others, and how often we curse together and laugh more.
Sturdy if not always clean floors to pad across in winter or summer.
This laptop that allows me to peer into its magic mirror and connect with you.
I could go on all day, and you probably could too. Please share some of you’re grateful for in the comments below.
Kelley Hunt and my 16th annual six-day Brave Voice, Sept. 19-24 in Council Grove, Kansas. We have strong Covid protocols in place to keep everyone protected (all participants must show proof of vaccination, we’ll be spread out and will use masks for big group meetings), and the White Memorial Camp is also very committed to keeping us all healthy and safe. Everyone you need will be right at the camp too, including delicious, healthy meals (with vegan and vegetarian options).
Why should you join us at this retreat? Here’s some reasons:
Magic: Yes, there is real magic, and it happens when you get a group of people who love to create — write, sing, make art, or just dip their toes into any of it — together in a sacred and relaxing place, mix in vast vistas of the lake and surrounding hills, add excellent food and deep sleep, and let everyone find their own best answers.
Rest: There’s something about being away from home, surrounded by water and prairie, big skies and gentle breezes (with an occasional good rain) that makes for good sleeping weather. Plus, we hold open afternoons for people to create, wander, explore, collaborate, or take naps.
Perspective: We all need to step out from the ordinary noise of our daily lives and see who we are now and what we have to say to ourselves and others from a new vantage point.
Courage: Brave Voice is a courageous place where people are daring to create and listen to their hearts’ songs. Just being in that space give us back more of ourselves.
Community: People make friendships, sometimes even for life, here. We witness each other, listen carefully, and find clarity and connection in community.
Music: We sing, we’re sung to, we listen, we explore (no one has to sing alone or even sing at all), and oh, Kelley Hunt does a private concert for us!
Writing: Writing is a way of knowing what’s true for us and what no longer holds water. In listening to each other, we find our way to our own strongest words and truest stories. I also do a private reading just for us.
Surprises: The happy kind of surprises abound — maybe fresh pineapple or a new song (even if you’ve never written one), maybe a shooting star, a wonderful dream, or a double rainbow. Expect to be surprised in good ways.
You: Coming to Brave Voice brings you home to yourself even more, and hey, don’t you need a great retreat right now?
Flash Sale: We’re having a special sale to make Brave Voice more affordable for you right now — Aug. 18-22. Come visit our registration page here for the details of how to save close to $100.
A year ago today, pacing an empty parking lot, I cried so hard on the phone with my friend Kelley that it was hard to get the words out: “I have cancer. In my eye. I’m so scared.” Ken was racing back from Topeka to meet me after my two hours of scans at the ophthalmologist’s office. My right’s eye blurry eyesight wasn’t a minor glitch in this body’s solar system, but a large asteroid crashing through whatever semblance I had of calm, whatever thoughts I had of being safe.
Thus began my personal pandemic with its the customary WTF? phone calls, bouts of fear storms, and a lot of clearing of the calendar. The next day was far worse when my new ocular oncologist said it could be a melanoma but it was more likely a brain tumor. “Let’s hope for the melanoma then,” I said. She shook her head, “They’re both bad!” The interim between that moment — a few hours of more scans in between pacing the waiting room with Ken and my brother Ravi — and the oncologist confirming it was a treatable melanoma was terrifying. But when we got home that day, the sky took on a new sheen: a rainbow to the east, and it was enough.
I thought my life would be briefly interrupted and not changed all that much, but just like my breast cancer road trip 17 years earlier, it took many months and knocked over many plans, notions, and habits. I would have many more scans and tests, a radiation implant in my eye that would require two major surgeries, and a whole lot of time enveloped in hurt and anxiety. That summer, I hardly left the house except to visit a doctor or my therapist, donning two pairs of sunglasses and often a towel over my head because light hurt (obviously, I wasn’t driving). Eventually, I healed, and although my right eye is far past legally blind and I still can’t open it completely, I’m okay. The changes put in motion are still unfolding, and that’s okay too.
While the word “pandemic” refers to a global epidemic, for me and for any of us who go through such mortality-laced journeys, it sure felt like my whole world was in crisis. To ensure healing and safety, I was in home lock-down much of the time. The economy of Caryn World also tripped into the ground and stayed there for a while with lost income and, even with decent health insurance, thousands of dollars of medical bills. But lucky for me — and lucky for all of us right now — I could choose to surrender to what I needed to do based on the best science and medicine available.
Yes, a global pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes, but most if not all of us have lived through the world as we know it dissolving under our feet in a flash. Having the rug pulled out due to serious illness, death, heartbreak, and all manner of other very human challenges is part and parcel of being alive. We think we’re living one story, and poof! Suddenly, it’s a good thing to have erasable gel pens for your calendar, some savings, and the ability to make good things out of our friend, the potato.
This comes home to me lately on Tuesday nights when, through Turning Point, I facilitate writing workshops for people living with serious illness. I started doing these workshops 18 years ago, fresh out of cancer #1, although now we’re meeting through Zoom instead of in-person. A little like a warped futuristic vision of the Brady Bunch, 18-21 of us write and listen our way to greater meaning, strength, and mutual understanding. Some are finding new ways to bake chocolate tortes, some are summoning the strength to get out of bed while irrevocably heartbroken by the loss of a spouse, and some are dealing with chronic pain or what bad news might be just around the next blood test or MRI.
We’re well-accustomed to the land of the personal pandemic, and a good many were unfazed by stay-at-home orders, which we’ve had to enact before for a few months or as a way of life after losing some of our immune system’s robustness or our body’s mobility. We know what it is to eat resilience for breakfast, aiming ourselves toward outlooks and activities that tilt open the door to some calm, some comfort, some joy. “Yeah, I don’t go to the store anyway,” a woman with a neurological disease told us. “I’ve hardly left my house for years,” someone else chimed in. Over years of living with illness and/or being a caregiver for a patient, many have learned how to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” to quote Boyd K. Packer. No wonder we find great intrigue in the antics of squirrels or birds, growing flowers, baking bread, or other everyday resilience practices, readily available as we cross over the threshold of one room to another.
But it’s not just what people do in a personal pandemic: it’s very much how they frame the narrative, including the low dips, of their experience. Someone I’ll call Lulu has minimal energy because of her aggressive cancer, so she’s determined to make the best use of her time and energy left, using it to talk lovingly with her family and make special surprise boxes for her husband and daughter to find after she’s gone. “Bill” goes to his porch to breathe through the pain, focusing his attention on cardinals fighting it up in aerial dances. Lou (who has given me permission to use her name) wrote a book about her Vietnam nursing experience, where she was exposed to the Agent Orange that planted Parkinson’s in her; now she regularly speaks to veteran groups and community gatherings in between gardening and grandmothering, even if she’s a little off-balance some days.
This day, a year after my last personal pandemic showed up, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, seven weeks in lockdown, but I take note of how many doors are still open, like one leading outside, where I plant some lilies or the door to my car which I can drive well enough with one eye to meet friends for socially-distant walks. As time passes, I even cross the threshold of not seeing my eye adventure as a loss because I keep learning how in any pandemic — personal or global — we have the ability to grow magic eyes that let us see our small worlds or the world-at-large in new ways.
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I live down a winding and dipping gravel road, lately wet or puddled in its low parts because of underground springs and an abundantly rainy summer. Coming down this drive today after the long catapult from 4 a.m. in Paradise Valley, Arizona, to my son Forest’s car at the Kansas City airport, homecoming filled my lungs, eyes, and heart as we turned toward this house, supported and supporting this porch where I live. It’s a place of sudden sideways rain when the wind and humidity soar. I live here in this weather: changeable, dramatic, boring, shining, then surprising all in an afternoon.
I’ve always lived in the wind and sky. From my Brooklyn bedroom, upstairs in a narrow triplex somewhere in East Flatbush, I would lean out the window especially during storms, even remnants of hurricanes, just to feel that rush of air and rain on my face. In Arizona, where I had the delight to experience a bit of what they call monsoon season (and what call here an ordinary afternoon), I walked across the retreat center’s rock gardens in the big speed of wind and water until I arrived at a revelation there, for me at least, blossoming jasmine. That’s because I also live in the vivid scent of flowers: lilac, lavender, asiatic lilies, daffodils, hyacinth, wild roses and tumbles of domesticated roses, and particularly my favorite that brings me to my knees because they live close to the ground: lily-of-the-valley.
Like most of us, I live in my senses, and particularly this summer, sound made by the weaving, rising, falling, encompassing, and diminishing songs of cicadas, katydids, tree frogs, birds of many barks and trills. Right now, I lean into the sound of crickets. I live for a great meal when the lettuce from the farmer’s market meets the cucumbers from the garden beside a perfectly roasted sweet potato, grilled corn on the cob, and lemon-mustard-maple chicken. I live in the touch of my husband’s hand on the small of my back and how my daughter melts into me when we hug as well as the feel of the breeze at this moment on my forearms mixing with the air the ceiling fan spirals down. I find life in the vibrant purples of the morning glories and the deep gray-blues of the thunderhead’s edge, especially when the sun shines on or through either.
I live in this moment, then the next one. Yet sometimes a dozen tabs spring open in my mind of what I plan or imagine or what I think happened an hour or decade ago. I live in too much planning and not always enough remembering, a propensity to overly rely on what’s possible rather than what’s likely, and a whole lot of iced water to love sipping along the way. Encompassing so much of my life and work, I also live in writing, where I find my way free from all the biting critters in my mind and angular news inching or powering through the radio or what someones says to me in a parking lot. On the page and screen, I make things, and just doing that makes me feel as alive as I actually am.
I live here, right on the cusp of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when we go from 5779 to 5780 at sunset. On the other side of sunset, I will be sitting, standing, davening, maybe even dancing a little, and afterwards, eating cookies with my tribe here. I will arrive at the start of a new and very old space to live, time and place always meeting at a precise, and if I remember to take in the miracle of life, luminous home. That’s where I live.