Defining Moments in the Dark: Everyday Magic, Day 1075

I was fifteen years ago and miserable when I first went to a youth group Havdalah service one winter evening. I was living with my very difficult father in a big house, so much bigger now that my mother and siblings had moved out, and I was the loneliest I had or have ever been, having lost most of my extended family and living in the ‘burbs where even the neighbors stopped talking to us.

My deep sadness along with some suicidal thoughts had led my father to bring me to the rabbi of our synagogue, who promptly put me in the temple youth group. Now we were gathered for the short end-of-sabbath service (Sabbath begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sundown Saturday night). This eight minute or so service is all about the senses. Our bunch of awkward teens held each other in a circle and sang, first lighting the braided Havdalah candle, then passing around a spice box filled with clove and cinnamon, then taking sips from a cup of wine. At the end, someone aimed the wild twining flame of the candle into the leftover wine for a satisfying sizzle that signified the start of a new week.

I couldn’t know then it was the start of a new life for me. That youth group and especially Phil, a youth group advisor who took me under his wing, saved my life, giving me a sense of belonging, listening to what was broken in me, and believing in my ability to fix myself in time. After each Havdalah service, we sat in a circle sharing our thoughts on a topic, often writing first on a moment that changed our life, what we value most, or what was hardest for us. We cried, even and especially the guys. We hugged each other. We wrote fast and furiously in our journals. Some nights we have lock-ins, unfurling our sleeping bags on the bema (little stage where services are led from), and talking on and off long into the night. We spoke things aloud we couldn’t tell anyone else. Together, we made a kind of mosaic of all our broken pieces, then had donuts and orange juice for breakfast.

It’s no wonder that a lot of my workshops, sans sleeping together on a carpeted stage, involve the same. We write and read. We speak our truths. We learn to listen to each other, and from that, to ourselves more. We discover what we most have and need to say, and where those words and callings lead us in our work, art, service, and purpose.

How I got from sitting in the dark with my youth group to facilitating workshops, coaching people on writing and right livelihood, and collaborating with wonderful co-teachers on life-giving projects followed a long and meandering river of time, intentions, jobs, gigs, and listening to what signs and wonders pointed the way. I now make a living doing things I couldn’t have imagined as a teenager, from facilitating writing workshops for two dozen people living with serious illness over Zoom to planning an online and Zoom-based intensive class with Kathryn Lorenzen on Your Right Livelihood.

But I still write in my journal, sometimes sharing what comes with others, sometimes even crying at the release of what needs to be said and what difference saying it makes. I still love and treasure what can happen when humans put down, to paraphrase Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, their sword and shield, and come into the courageous, vulnerable wisdom we make space for together.

These defining moments are sprinkled throughout our lives, sometimes in unlikely places or at surprisingly young or old ages. We turn a corner, see something out of the corner of our eye, wake up in the middle of a January night with a start, meet the eyes of a stranger in the produce aisle, and something clicks into place. We might not know where that something is leading us, but we know we need to follow. As W.S. Merwin writes in his poem, “The Gift”: “I must be led by what was given to me/ as streams are led by it/ and braiding flights of birds.”

This braided candle of community, creativity, and meaning was given to me when I was fifteen and its light still shines and leads me on.

For the Love of Aunt Jill: Everyday Magic, Day 1072

Aunt Jill, my brother Barry and me in about 1965.

“I’m not going to leave a message,” my sister Lauren said when she left a message Friday. I was standing in the corner of an ebullient restaurant where Ken and I were having dinner with friends. I had slipped away from the table when I saw texts from two of my three siblings to call them immediately. Ringing up my brother, I got the news: Aunt Jill, who I just spoke with the night before, had been found dead in her home.

Sometimes life levels us with such surprise it’s hard to catch our breath. Thursday night, Aunt Jill texted me that she could use some of my energy, an unusual request from her. I called on my drive home from giving a Holocaust presentation. We had a tender conversation about the cancer surgery she had only had a month earlier and how common it was to fall in a pit of depression when we’re on the other side of such rites of survival. We chatted about how the dark and cold of winter didn’t help, why dogs were the love of her life, how sad it was that her last dog had to be put down a few days earlier, and what it would take to get a new dog.

Her voice was warm, and she brightened up when we chatted about her getting canine companionship again. By the time we finished, I was in my living room, having put the call on speaker phone for Ken to hear. I promised to call her soon. “We love you so much,” I said at the end. “I love you so much too,” she answered. I hung up and immediately told myself I needed to stay in better touch with her, call every week or so although until recently we had gone months without talking.

But we had known each other for years, my whole life obviously, and at the start of that life, my parents and I even lived with her, just twelve at the time, and her parents/ my grandparents. My father’s little sister, she was always around in my growing-up years, further down the road to some semblance of adulthood. By the time I was a kindergartener, I thought she was the coolest of the cool — an elegant teenager with teased hair, smoothed down to a perfect 1965 flip. I watched her apply mascara and pink lipstick, wear increasingly shorter skirts as the 60s marched on, and rush out the door in white go go boots boots. But sometimes she and her friends took me with them to the diner to have chocolate malts, and I was thrilled from my toes to my ice-cream-head-freeze from sipping the malt too fast.

Jill back in the day

My aunt Jill had a hard and lonely life in many ways. Growing up in a family where dysfunction was an extreme sport, and growing up as the youngest and as a girl often ignored, she ended up following one of the few paths seemingly open to her and became a second-grade teacher. I don’t remember her ever saying there was anything about it she enjoyed, especially since she taught in a school in one of Brooklyn’s most despairing and dangerous neighborhoods. “How many of your students graduated from high school and went on to good lives?” Ken once asked her when we hung out in her apartment on Ave. X. She shook her head and answered, “None.” I wonder about her answer and whether she was too burnt out to do more than get through the day.

Jill didn’t marry although she suffered through some awful-for-her relationships, but she found many furry soulmates in dogs over the years. She had a gift for giving good lives to older, traumatized and hurting dogs that no one else wanted, even if they destroyed her furniture, peed on her rugs, and woke her up all night with their whines. She also adored travel and went on trips and cruises whenever she could with friends or travel groups.

Yet many conversations with her over the years didn’t convey what she really cared about or liked to do. I remember one Thanksgiving sitting with her and my late uncle Jerry (from my mother’s side of the family), and having this exchange:

“What are you doing lately?”

“Nothing,” she answered, then high-fived Jerry.

“Where have you gone?”

“Nowhere,” she answered, high-fiving Jerry again.

“Well then who have you been hanging out with me?”

“No one,” she said, high-giving Jerry and laughing with him.

Part of why she didn’t have much to say is because she often didn’t have much time to talk in between going outside for cigarettes, then e-cigarettes, then back to cigarettes. I used to occasionally lecture her about giving up smoking, not understanding that if she could have, she would have. But she was always up for companion complaining. Like her mother before her, she was also a champion kvetcher, and pity any of us who went out to restaurants with them and watch the parade of returned food offered, especially before she mellowed out.

Some of Jill’s art, sparkly just the way I love things

Yet when she did sit a spell with me, what she mostly wanted to hear was how I was, how my work was, how the kids were, how Ken was. She was a very good aunt to my sibs and me, listening and sending cards and gifts, showing up at wedding and celebrations, reaching out on Facebook or email just to see how we were. My daughter Natalie said she was one of the people who often wrote encouraging comments on social media when Natalie was struggling.

With both my aunts — Jill and Rhoda — now both gone.

Jill was supposed to join our extended family for a wedding party in Orlando, a year after we all convened there for my mother’s birthday, but cancer surgery kept her home. Yet in the past months, I ended up talking to her on the phone more, sometimes while pacing our house past our entryway where we keep some of the art she made in the last few years, then went to the trouble to frame and mail to us. In some ways, I was just starting to really get to know more of her, which is why I was so moved when she reached out Thursday night.

Now it’s seems I’m the last person she talked to, and of course, I had no idea it was the last time I would talk with her. It hurts that she’s gone, and beyond that, I can only hope that she’s found some kind of peace and sense of belonging in a place filled with dogs.

27 Things I’m Grateful For: Everyday Magic, Day 1071

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:

  1. 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.
  2. A refrigerator full of leftovers and magic ingredients for many a good meal.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. Writing in all its splendor and ordinariness, and thank god I found and was found by writing, and we continue this dance together.
  7. The ability to sing with great joy if not great talent or range.
  8. 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).
  9. 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 $).
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Speaking of which, Cameron Crowe movies — Almost Famous, Elizabethtown — and also other favorite movies, especially Wings of Desire written and directed by Wim Wenders.
  13. The cat who claims me and purrs on my chest at 2 a.m. for hours (luckily, she’s only 4.5 pounds).
  14. This comfortable chair (straight-backed and cushioned in a satisfying floral print) I found at a consignment store in North Lawrence.
  15. Socks. I really like socks.
  16. 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.
  17. Lamps and ceiling lights emanating out that pale orange-almost-pink-white glow at different heights.
  18. 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….
  19. Murmurations of starlings because: magic.
  20. 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!).
  21. Utilities of all kinds that keep us warm, lit, and safe.
  22. Hot oatmeal and Yorkshire Gold tea most mornings.
  23. Sunshine streaming through the windows and pouring all over me outside many days.
  24. The gift of interesting dreams, particularly ones in which I discover secret rooms in the house.
  25. 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.
  26. Sturdy if not always clean floors to pad across in winter or summer.
  27. 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.

Living As If We Know We’ll Be Okay: Everyday Magic, Day 1068

So a little dubious, plus the only person wearing a mask

In one of my favorite movies, About Time, the main character, who can time travel, hatches a great plan: he’ll live each day with all its waking up exhausted, rushing through big halls, and navigating crowded subways where some guy blasts loud music on his phone. Then he’ll live the same day again knowing what small or big annoyances await him, and now able to enjoy even the little setbacks. But after a while, he realizes he can simply live each day once, guided by the perspective that he’s going to be okay, so why not delight in the miniature of life instead of boarding the anxiety train?

I think of this movie often, especially when a free ticket to the anxiety train is placed in my hand. Yesterday, waiting for the bus at Kansas City International Airport, which was very late, then packed to sardine capacity, I started to worry, especially when the stopped at every station in my parking lot, then all the parking lots, stuffing and squeezing in more people. “Remember About Time,” I told myself, along with directing myself to take long, deep breaths. I would make my flight, I might not get an ideal seat (Southwest Airlines), but the flight to Denver was short. Besides, the sunset was glorious and people were making jokes about almost sitting in each other’s laps to accommodate more riders.

I needed to tell myself all this in triplicate when we landed in Denver, which I soon discovered was the third busiest airport in the world, plus I had no idea how to find the passenger pick-up exit where my friend would be waiting. I asked for directions, but in the rush of thousands of people walking vast distances through airport shopping malls and herding ourselves onto and off of the train to the main terminal, I kept forgetting where to go. Yet knowing there was a happy ending some time ahead, I relaxed than I would have in the past, which was helpful when I got our more times. I was also delighted to meet a United Nations of immigrants working at the airport who warmly accompanied me from one wrong place to another (although they meant well).

The thing is, that even if we take the wrong path, get off at the wrong stop, shlep our luggage to the wrong exit, or ride the wrong escalator, we almost always get where we need to be. Obviously, this isn’t just about travel.

If I regret anything besides any time I hurt anyone (knowingly or unknowingly), it’s the wasted energy, overwrought anxiety, and stupid fretting I spent on the wrong things. Even worry about the right things — impending loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, a car accident — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, as almost all of you dear readers know, when the shit hits the fan and the bottom drops out, what we feel, think, discover, and go through is often beyond our imagined response. As a connoisseur of anticipatory anxiety, I’ve found tensing up and freaking out ahead of time is highly overrated and bears no fruit.

But when it comes to the here and now, I want to continue acting as if I’m living this day a second time, relaxing with all the mishegas that comes while telling myself to calm the fuck down because in the end, it’s going to be okay. To quote another movie, this time The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end”

We Never Leave You, You Never Leave Us: Everyday Magic, Day 1064

I left because it was making me sick, the “it” being the job I had loved fiercely and believed I would give my heart and time to until I was well past retirement age. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was one of the bravest. But my decision also meant I was parted from beloved land and people in and around Vermont who altogether were another home to me.

That was close to four years ago, and illness, cancer, and the pandemic being what they were, I didn’t have the chance to return to Goddard College, and more to the point, the places and people of my heart, until very recently. As soon as the plane touched down, I was surprise-flooded with ansty sorrow and sad urgency, something I would later realize was grief. It turns out that sometimes there’s only so much reconciliation and healing you can do from a distance. The first thing I had to do after we got our rental car was go to the campus with Ken, ferret out Jennifer, the woman who has holds together the college for the good over decades, and hug her a long time.

In 1996, I fell in love with the hills, mountains, woods, valleys, curves, and weather of the Green Mountains through the grounds of Goddard College. The smell of the air (pine, fir, humidity, and old wood) then, the mission of the college, the intense comradery of the faculty, and the life-changing work with the students filled me with a sense that I had found my place….at least for a good long while. I adored the intense, one-on-one teaching—more facilitation of what people wanted to learn and how they could best explore it—I did with students as well as the deep-dish connections with fellow faculty, talking late into the night about whatever made us laugh hardest.

The possibilities felt wide open, and it was there I developed Transformative Language Arts, founded and coordinated a MA in TLA for twenty years, and dug in to spin out out thousands of pages of proposals, plans, handouts, handbooks, and more for other projects, most of which crashed on the shores of we-fear-all-change in its many guises.

I persevered even when the signs billboarded sickness and anxiety, stuckness and despair. In my last decade or so of teaching there, the faculty in my program played a lot of go-on-leave-or-get-fired roulette because of the scarcity of resources and poverty mentality. We took pay cuts. Repeatedly. And we were getting paid way under value in the first place. Bad things happened, including the college, because of poor leadership and other issues, being put on probation. Infighting escalated. Then, for me, some big revelations.

First, I realized I needed to go on leave. Just a semester off, I told myself, after teaching continuously at Goddard or other institutions for 63 semesters straight with never a break. Once on leave, I decided to take off a second semester because I couldn’t make myself come back. Then the dreams started: night after night of seeing myself leaving my job. I’d wake up the next morning to tell myself I loved my job, but then I’d hear a voice in my head ask, “Do you?”

I didn’t anymore. I also had to reconcile myself with the immutable fact that after each ten-day or longer residency, I’d fly back to Kansas and promptly get sick for at least six weeks with chronic sinus issues, migraines, digestive hell. The body never lies, so they say, and this body rang clear as a bell. When I told close friends and my therapist I was thinking of quitting, they replied, “of course you are,” “it’s about time,” and “thank God.”

Since I left, most of my fellow faculty and the director of my program also departed. We’ve stayed in touch, speaking our leaving or needing-to-leave stories, the grief over what was no longer enduring, the dashed hopes and lost people along the way. Yet for me a searing bitterness lingered, blocking out all the good I experienced there, all the ways Goddard grew me up and blew open my understandings of places and people. I felt a sting when I ran into old photos of the place or picked up a cloth bag and found it had the college logo I once so proudly displayed. I had some reckoning to do.

When I returned to Vermont, it was also to wander with Jim across fields bordering Canada while watching ospreys in their nest. To laugh with Ruth over lunch in a quintessential Vermont charmer of a town. To make quinoa tabouli (so good!) with Suzanne we would eat outside surrounded by mountains beyond mountains. To meet the new goats at Sara and Joseph’s place in between hugging them repeatedly. To talk about our lives with Bobby. To connect with past students I’ve missed so much. To listen to so many others I carry with me in my heart from afar. It was a trip full of long hugs and overflowing delight in each other’s presence.

The woods on campus

But there was also this place that carried me for so long. I returned to campus a second time, leaving Ken to nap in the car, and went to the woods. When I was last here in 2018, I left little love notes in the woods, tucking them between branches or under rocks, thanking this place and saying goodbye just in case I didn’t return. It was over six months before I would decide that, but some part of me knew. Now I faced the woods, sitting against a light post on the path between the dorms and the library with my journal open. I was ready to write more notes.

Instead, the wind, the tall trees, the slow-motion falling first autumn leaves, the occasional acorn dropping, the soft late afternoon light told me to take dictation. The place was writing back to me, but no wonder. We are in reciprocal relationships with the land and sky we listen and speak to over time.

“You never left us. We never left you. You never leave us. We never leave you.” This, in so many words, is what I heard and recorded. It chimed through me as truth, helping me see that this place was and still is a healing ground underneath it all (and there’s a lot of “it all”). It turns out I only left a job because it’s impossible to actually leave what’s embedded in you.

Since then, I’ve been thinking of a Mary TallMountain poem I love, “There Is No Word For Goodbye” (which you can see in its entirety here). She writes, “We just say, Tlaa. That means,/ See you./ We never leave each other./ When does your mouth/ say goodbye to your heart?” It doesn’t, and we never leave each other.