Although 2020 is already underfoot, this is my first blog post of the year, and it’s the first post that will go out to all of you who are subscribers since sometime in October when my website had some issues. Thanks to my soul brother Ravi’s generous time and ample wisdom, the sight is fully rehabbed, including automatic emails going out to subscribers again. So here’s a poem for the new year (an oldie but still relevant) and links to any posts you may have missed. I wish everyone and our world at large the peace that surpasses understanding and the courage to address what’s most broken in our lives and on our planet.
Prayer for the New Year
Let the blankets hold the shapes of our sleeping
all the dreams long. Let the cat on the dog’s bed
move over enough for the dog. Let the snow,
gathered tight to the afternoon sky, relax its grip
and show us the white contours of the new world.
Let the last one to leave the room close the lights
and the first one to rise make the coffee.
Let the sorrow we carry unfurl enough to reveal
its story’s ending, whether that ending is upon us
or still to come. Let the windows hold the pink gold
of the just-rising sun and the infinite blue darkening
of the rising night. Let the flowers and stones
make their ways to the gravestones of those we love
who left but never left, no matter how tender
the pain of their imprint. Let the flowers and stones
we collect to carry in our pockets and books
remind us of all that cycles its beauty through
the gift of this life. Let the quietest clearing
in prairie or woods, party of one or crowd of crows
land us exactly where we are. Let the rain come
and our unexpected shimmeying and leaping
alone in the living room. As well, let come
the storm warnings with time enough to find
a basement, the silver light of the winter horizon,
When I had breast cancer 17 years ago, I learned some things about resilience, the ability to bounce back. There’s nothing like being thrown off a bucking bronco to discover that yes, you can hit the ground, hard, and yes, you can hobble back to your feet and strength. There’s also nothing like community and all the love that made me upright again, then fed me homemade soup at regular intervals.
In 2002, I discovered I had breast cancer, lymph node involvement, and also the BRCA 1 genetic mutation — which increases the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other cancers (even melanomas, like what I now have). There were three big surgeries, akin to holding onto a mechanical bull in the middle of a tornado, surrendering to the anesthesia, and waking up to nausea and clear skies. There were also months of chemo, mounting one unbroken pony after another with the certainty that I would be thrown off and I would throw up, and my white cells and mojo would plummet. I’d be overtaken by a numbing white sleeve of sleep at any moment interspersed with steroid-induced closet re-organization at 3 a.m. Ken, my family, friends, and big community love got me through, filled our refrigerator with blintzes and chocolate pudding for the six months of chemo, drove kids to and from piano lessons and hospital visits, brought me a TV and VCR (we had neither beforehand) so I could zone out on Steve Martin movies, and talked me through fear storms.
In the years since, I’ve understood that the cancer rodeo grabs hold of many of us as patients and just about all of us as people who love people with cancer. Having facilitated writing workshops for people with cancer and other serious illnesses at Turning Point in Kansas City for the last 17 years, I’ve also seen miraculous displays of grace: people who find the strength to open their hearts to life and make new meaning. From all of this, I’ve learned a few rodeo tricks and tips from the pros:
Generally, the hardest part is the excruciating limbo between “you have what sure seems like cancer” to a precise diagnosis and treatment plan.
New and mind-blowingly innovative medical treatments are coming to fruition all the time.
Energy healing and other forms of healing (whatever works for you) — acupuncture, massage, yoga, nutrition, walking with friends, laughing our asses off together — at best can spark startling revelations, and at worse, can dissolve incapacitating fear.
Denial is not a dirty word: it’s a necessary coping mechanism along with dimming the harsh lights of what’s likely ahead for us. We can’t live fully while carrying a backpack full of big rocks all the time.
Statistics are somewhat meaningless in the intimate space of being alive as a singular person connected to other people in the here and now. I’ve seen people with stage 4 cancers kvetching and sharing jokes 15 years out, and I’ve seen the opposite, too.
Cancer doesn’t change who we are; nor does treatment. I feared I wouldn’t still be myself on heavy doses of chemo, and yet I was totally still me, maybe even more so. Big dances with mortality reveal to us more of who we innately are, and that is a priceless gift of perspective.
There’s incredible good company at the cancer rodeo: people with the best senses of humor and get-up-and-go gumption because of close encounters with the life force. These are the best people you’ll ever meet or even be.
No one is immune to mortality.
Which leads me to now: some fuzzy vision in my right eye and a lot of blinking since March led me to an excellent ophthalmologist, Dr. Brown, who, after two hours of shining lights into my eyes while having me look right or left and taking various images, had to tell me there was definitely cancer there. My stomach plummeted, and I felt the floor fall away. The rest of the day included talking with my wonderful integrative physician, Dr. Sandal, and my fantastic oncologist, Dr. Soule, in between a lot of phone calls, numbness, loss of appetite (a rare thing for me), occasional freak-outs at what wild animals I would have to ride and fear over if I would get to the other side intact. I also petted my cat a lot.
Yesterday, Ken, my soul brother Ravi, and I went on an inner space mission to Dr. Desai, a superb ocular oncologist at St. Luke’s Hospital. Did you know they can do an ultrasound of your eyeball? I know that along with how contrast dye of the eye produces clear images and that if you subtract the shortest man in the world from the tallest, you get Shaq O’Neal (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was booming in the waiting room). The extreme possibilities were extremely dire, and while I won’t know for completely sure if the rest of my body is clear until after the PET scan and brain MRI, when Dr. Desai said it was a treatable melanoma, I burst out crying in relief.
What’s next is a tiny gold button full of radioactive pellets planted behind my eye before being removed five days later. Then, aside from potential and probable long-term side-effects and vigilant monitoring for the spread of micro-melanomas, I’m done with this rodeo, and maybe with the cancer rodeo circuit for good…..or not, which is a big reason all this can be so scary.
Now it’s time to ready myself for the rodeo and other metaphoric renderings of what’s ahead, knowing I will find a way through thanks to dedicated medical professionals, gifted healers, and especially my best-beloveds, particularly Ken, who gets to go with me yet again through a mess of tests and challenges. While I don’t own a pair of red cowgirl boots, I can barely ride a horse, and I can’t yodel to save my life, I can be brave enough to let all these people and procedures save my life. Then, probably sometime this summer, l’ll be on the other side with a more resilient spirit, more grateful heart, and maybe a cowboy hat too.
Thank you for reading this and being with me at the start of all this.
A few hours after the Tree of Life shooting, we clung to each other — singing, praying, crying — at the Beth Israel Center in Madison, WI. Family members, old and new friends, and synagogue goers — most of them elders, just like the people murdered in Pittsburgh while praying, gathered for a Miriam’s Well reading preceded by a Havdalah service, a 10-minute Saturday evening ritual to close the Sabbath and welcome the new week. But with the pain we carried from the worst anti-semitic attack in U.S. history, the braided Havdalah candle, the only light in the dark sanctuary, took on new, and unfortunately for us (a people targeted throughout history for annihilation) old meaning.
Later that night, my friend Mary Ellen, who was among us, wrote me, “I keep thinking about the Mr. Rogers quote about what can we do when bad things happen to feel better. He said ‘Look for the helpers”’ He might have meant the first responders, but I think it’s for all healers and folks who create. Maybe he should have said ‘Look for the Miriams.'” Given that the shooting happened in Fred Rogers’ neighborhood, this is all the more appropriate.
Miriam — storied in the Torah and ample midrash (interpretations in prose, poetry, and other arts) — leads us singing and dancing in the desert of our times no matter where we wander and for how long. She also carries a stone she can turn into a well to allow the refugee Jews to water their animals and grow food, which in turn, provides sustenance and survival. How this works, as Naomi in my novel tells Miriam, isn’t clear, “But healing is always a mystery, isn’t it?”
I see Miriam as one who feeds her people’s bodies and souls; all around me, I see many Miriams. Our long-time friend Sue not only hosted us and prepared a beautiful spread of desserts from the novel (rugalah, lemon bars, carrot cake and more), but as regularly as most people breathe, she serves her community, from making food for mourners, to bravely heading off to Shabbat services just minutes after she heard of the shooting. Marty, our administrative director at our local Jewish synagogue, brings great presence, calm, and love to wherever task she does and room she enters. My sister-in-law Karen spends several weekends each month taking care of our mother-in-law, baking her favorite pie with her, making stews and inviting us to come eat too. Kelley sings for people across the country, lending her voice and being to many benefits, embodying one of the songs we co-wrote, “You Gotta Be the Vessel.” My daughter Natalie, who fiercely supports people under attack, whether because they’re of color, trans, or suffering from mental illness, posted this on Facebook after the attacks: “My heart aches with you. But even through my grief, I am HERE for you. May this horrific event unify us as a community and make us stronger!” I could go on for not just inches of text, but yards and even miles about all the Miriams in plain sight.
Our communities themselves can also enact Miriam or Mary or Lakshmi or other symbol of Tikkun Olam — rebuilding the broken world — through coming together in vigil, action, witnessing, and change-making. Moving forward as a people, a nation, a world requires all of us to find our innate Miriams from whatever our traditions: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, spiritual, religious, or communal. WWJD is one light to follow, and there are many more beings of light, mythic and/or historic, long gone or right here among us.
People have an amazing capacity to come together in song, prayer, and tears, but also, afterwards, in keeping on keeping on. Within minutes of the Havdalah service ending, I started reading from Miriam’s Well, and we began laughing. The heightened moment and this audience’s visceral understanding of Miriam as well as the New York City subway system, the 1965 blackout, and other nuances of history, amplified everyone’s responses. Life calls on us to come together, make something greater than the sum of our seemingly separate selves, and together make our way toward the light: peace, justice, respect, homecoming. Healing may be mysterious, but it rarely happens by accident.
Look for the Miriams, whoever she is to or within you, and make of your life your own braided candle to light and hold high.
Special thanks to Elissa Pollack for arranging this event and to Beth Copelovitch for leading the Havdalah services
“Your big rocks are the rituals of pause,” Dr. Neela Sandal told me a few weeks ago. I’ve been working with Neela for a few years to tunnel out (successfully too!) of some chronic health issues, and I had mentioned that I needed more rituals of pause through my day to check in with myself instead of checking off the next item on my endless list. I had also told him about the analogy of how you can only gets rocks, pebbles, sand, and water into a jar if you put in the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff to fill in the gaps. If you put the water in first, then the sand and pebbles, you’ll never get the rocks in.
What Neela, a marvelous integrative physician and founder of Atma Clinic, said rocked my world. Wait, what about all the things I need to do for my health — take supplements, swim and lift weights, rest, eat healthy food, get my ass to yoga class? “Those are the pebbles, Caryn,” he told me. As a person catapulted through my days by an overwrought sense of urgency with the theme from the cartoon dog hero “Underdog” playing in the background (“Underdog will save the day!”), the idea of the big rocks being, well, just being blows me away.
Some of you may be raising your eyebrows and saying, “Just catching onto this now?” because you’re far more advanced as human beings than the ones of us too enmeshed as human doings, but hey, I’m starting to catch onto what I innately knew all my life. I was a genius at hitting the pause button and being with whatever the window had to show me about trees, clouds, and flitting robins in elementary school although it too often resulted in report card complaints about too much daydreaming.
Now I’m earnestly trying to be less earnest about the here and now. I remember how, during the Right Livelihood Professional Training opening weekend, I shared with participants what I used to tell students in my English 101 composition classes when I started teaching at K.U. in 1986: “Pay attention. Expect nothing. Keep going.” I thought this just applied to writing essays, but it obviously speaks to each moment as it comes. Not that I’m evolved enough to live there, but I’m making more space for the spaciousness of stepping outside of my mind’s eye of the world and into the world. Writing, good for so many things, is also good for returning to being: using our words to arrive where we already are.
Like right now when, on a high branch of a locust tree, 20 feet or so above my napping Honda CRV, and in time with Ulali singing “Mahk Jchi,” one of my favorite songs, a bird with a yellow breast calls, “chah chah chah.” A bee floats in half circle below the hummingbird, dipping beak to feeder. A small leaf, saturated with sunlight, dips off the Osage orange tree. I pick up my mason jar of iced coffee, the big rocks of ice melted minutes ago, take a sip, and bow at the altar of this world.
In this modern day retelling of the Exodus, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers Aaron and Moses. Beginning in the middle of the 1965 New York City blackout, when stuck in the pitch-black subway somewhere in the East River, Miriam's family encounters a mysterious rabbi, who persuades the family to go to Israel where the family is caught in the 6-Day War. The losses from the war break apart the family, scattering Moses to western Kansas to live with evangelical Christians, Aaron to New York City to practice corporate law, and Miriam all over America. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People's Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and miracles.
The novel also includes over 35 pages of real recipes from the fictional cooking and baking Miriam does throughout the book, including delicious dishes from Nancy O'Connor's The Rolling Prairie Cookbook, Jayni and Frank Carey's The New Kansas Cookbook, Janet Majure's Recipes Worth Sharing, and Meg Heriford of the Ladybird Cafe.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's retelling of Exodus is a sprawling tapestry, woven of all the threads of a modern-day Miriam's ancestors, and her own present and future. From the Badagry Point of No Return and a sukkah in the Sinai Desert to a series of camps, communes, and cafes all across America, Miriam's Well delves into the mystery of how we find our place in the world, within our families, even within ourselves. ~ Bryn Greenwood, New York Times bestselling author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
I fell in love with Miriam’s wisdom and her sweet engagements with the people she meets along her lush and vibrant travels. I was plunged to the depths of her nightmares, soared with her song, and emerged blessed to have made the journey with her. Miriam’s Well is the latest terrific book by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. ~ Jocelyn Cullity, author of Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons
Miriam’s Well is truly a hearty feast, and a song of life’s bounty, of its “fragile miracle,” of its sorrows and its cycling, its joy, its mystery, its sorrows, its journeying. The vibrantly moving and compelling storytelling is immediate, intimate, and resounding; bringing us into a complex weaving of tales, told and untold, from the Biblical epic to the painful legacy of United States, which frame the story of one brave woman with an inexhaustible well of caring. Daughter, sister, lover, neighbor, friend, mother, Miriam is one extraordinary ordinary woman whose life is emblematic of our absolutely interdependent web of relationships, physical and metaphysical, over the seasons of a lifetime and the histories of our own time. In Mirriam-Goldberg’s rendering of the web of story that is Miriam’s, Aaron’s, Joseph’s, Moses’, and our own, we are brought into the gift of tenderness and compassion in heartening human response to our historical conundrums. The work is big hearted, embracing, and wonderfully embodies love’s plenty and the power and the beauty of the story, the song, the telling, to remember and transform us. ~ Gale Jackson, author of Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance
Miriam’s Well is a page-turner that gently pulls the reader into the heroine’s quest while also chronicling the country’s cultural revolutions, gastronomic recipes, political causes, women’s communes, spirituality, the AIDS crisis, Oklahoma and Twin Tower terrorist attacks. A compelling writer, Mirriam-Goldberg’s Miriam’s Well captures a quintessential American story, its multitude of nations, of immigrants and indigenes, in the quest towards a meaningful national identity. ~ Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Professor of Theatre, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas
This startlingly insightful and quietly confrontational novel by poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg courageously inserts the biblical prophet Miriam into many of the most daunting and provocative ethical conflicts since the early 60's civil rights revolution, as though we are Israel after the Exodus from slavery and before the Promised Land. Mirriam-Goldberg’s story calls on readers to consider "Have I done enough?" and "What is it that the Lord requires of you?" A surprising page turner featuring multiple plot twists and turns, the moral challenges and clarity deserve more than attention, they demand debate. Do yourself a favor and share it with friends. ~ Rabbi Mark H. Levin, author of Praying the Bible
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg brings back the charged days of the 1970's revolutions and their aftermath in the decades to come in her novel Miriam's Well. For those of us who lived through those times, the book is a reminder of their importance.” ~ Thomas Pecore Weso, author of Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir.
With this novel, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has extended her considerable poetic talents to the narrative form, giving us sustenance for the body (her character's recipes) as well as inspiration for the spirit and the mind. A masterful adaptation of Biblical wisdom to the challenges of the modern age, entertaining while informing all along the way. And the storyline provides a marvelous overview of the cultural inflection points in 20th century American history along with an unforgettable character experiencing them. This is one not to be missed! ~ Mark Scheel, author of A Backward View: Stories and Poems
Would your book club like to read Miriam's Well? If so, just have your club buy six or more books (free shipping!), and Caryn will visit your club via video or phone conferencing or, if you're near where she is, in person. contact Caryn here.
Book Tour: Here is where I've given readings of this book. I'm happy to come to your community too.
Lawrence, Kansas -- Book Launch sponsored by the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, Lawrence Public Library, The Merc, and the Raven Bookstore.
Topeka, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash & Personal Mythology to Revision our Lives: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, A writing workshop based on Miriam's Well to unearth, explore, and revise our life's myths.
Topeka, Kansas - Miriam's Well Book Launch & Havdalah Service.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash & Personal Mythology to Revision Our Lives and Miriam's Well Reading, Temple B'Nai Israel. Workshop and reading followed by lunch featuring recipes from Miriam's Well.
Wichita, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading: Watermark Bookstore.
Prairie Village, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading & Brunch, Cafe Ohev at Temple Ohev Shalom.
Minneapolis, Minnesota - Miriam's Well Reading and Party, Mojo Coffee Gallery. Reading with delectable treats made from the novel.
Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading and Reception: Burkholder Project, part of First Fridays.
Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading & Reception: Francie & Finch Bookstore, featuring q & a, and a reception with recipes from the novel to try out.
Overland Park, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life workshop: Jewish Community Center's Day of Discovery.
Pittsburg, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Pittsburg State University.
Topeka, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Washburn University.
Kansas City - Miriam's Well KC Launch at Function Junction: short readings from the novel featuring Susan Hancock singing some of the songs Miriam sings, plus treats prepared from recipes in the novel.
Montpelier, Vermont - Miriam's Well Reading, sponsored by the library, Temple Beth Jacob, and Bear Pond Books.
Lawrence, Kansas - Writing Jewish Symposium: Sponsored by Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, day-long symposium featuring Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Renee Perelmutter, and Rena Rossner, and recipes from Miriam's Well.
Atchison, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Benedictine College.
Hutchinson, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Hutchinson Community College.
Emporia, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Emporia State University.
Springfield, N.J. - Reading at Sha'arey Shalom: talk and reading.
Madison, Wisconsin - Miriam's Well Reading & Havdalah Service: short Havdalah service (to welcome in the new week) and reception.
Lawrence, Kansas - Special Event: Osher Institute, University of Kansas: reading, discussion, and reception featuring recipes from the book.
Kansas City, MO - Read Local at the Plaza Library: reading and discussion of Miriam's Well.