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.

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?

10 Reasons to Come to Brave Voice: Everyday Magic, Day 1045

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Community: People make friendships, sometimes even for life, here. We witness each other, listen carefully, and find clarity and connection in community.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. You: Coming to Brave Voice brings you home to yourself even more, and hey, don’t you need a great retreat right now?
  10. 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.

Find out more at our website right here.