It’s Time for a Few Small Repairs: Everyday Magic, Day 1015

As the black-eyed susans and sunflowers eking out their blossoms in the dry heat of summer’s end, I’ve been singing the line, “It’s time for a few small repairs,” from Shawn Colvin’s song, “Sunny Came Home” to myself a lot lately. Fifteen months after the tiny potent disk of radiation visited my right eye for five days, I’m in the middle of a lot of post-cancer clean-up, none of which is overwhelming in its parts, but all of which it’s best not to think of all together.

More precisely, I have cataract and scar-tissue-removal surgery coming up on the 16th, and before and after that, I’m seeing a lot of my dentist because, do you know that radiation and other effects of cancer can cause many cavities? I didn’t know this, but I sure do now that I have 20 cavities, a likely root canal or two, and some cap replacement in my future. But here’s the deal: it’s not so much of a deal, not if I make it into one.

This is a moment when all those years of therapy have paid off better than I imagined because I learned that so much of what we whip up to be crazy, overwhelming, and painful isn’t necessarily so (I also have a therapist who calls me on any sentence I begin with “What if…?”). I think the last year especially testified in the voice of millions to us about how little we know of what will happen.

If I were a runner, I might use the analogy of breaking down the repairs into the legs of a marathon, but I’m a writer, so here goes: If I look at the next few months as a short-term writing project, I’m fine. That’s because I’ve learned over the years that it’s always best not to think of the whole book or essay at once, but each line or passage at a time.

Each little repair is a few pages I’m drafting over a few hours. Yup, there are some difficult paragraphs, like the pointed ones involving needles, and there’s also some when-will-this-end stretches of writing ahead as we drill down, sentence by sentence. Mostly though I just have to sit still while drugs are pumped into me (the surgery) or hold my mouth open while watching penguins slapping their feet down to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive” (my dentist thankfully plays old rock songs to nature films). At the end, there’s trimming and polishing, then I’m out of the door, maybe a little tired, but mostly a lot grateful that I got this part of the book drafted.

The thing about a few small repairs is that they’re do-able an in the known category of life as opposed to so much else in the world. I can do my part, but I can’t fix the pandemics of the virus, our country’s and world’s racism, or our planet’s climate change. I can’t control the many people wandering through grocery stores without masks on despite the rules to wear one, or — and why is this always older white guys? — the people defiantly wearing their masks pulled down below their noses. I can’t heal my friends who are suffering through life-changing diagnoses or, months after having the coronavirus, wondering if their lungs will recover their full capacity.

But I can sit relatively still with my mouth or eye open, breathe in and then out slowly for a count of four or more, and thank my lucky stars that I’m not in pain and I’m blessed beyond blessed with community, family, friends, and a wonderful home. Mostly, I can rejoice that I’m still here, and just in time to look at all this late-summer flowers, all being their own kind of small repairs to this world.

In the Last Hours of the Decade: Everyday Magic, Day 992

When I was kid, I fantasized about the year 2000, so far away it was almost unimaginable. Having a birthday in the tail-end of 1959, I thought about how I would be 40 then, so very old, over a decade older than my mother at the time. Now we’re about to tip over the cusp of 2020, I’ve just turned 60, and the unbelievability of time is still a deal for me. Walking across my deck in the cold, bright late light of the afternoon, year, and decade, I was struck by the magic of time travel from the kid I still very much am and what I seem to be now.

But that’s how time is: a human invention although the seasons born of the turning of the earth, the growth of the trees, and the motion of rocks moving slowly across oceans or fields keep their own kind of count. The closest I can come is through the animal nature of this being human thing: my skin has clearly aged, parts of the body shifting upward and mostly downward. Scars and wrinkles, freckles or pimples, veins more apparent in my limbs and hearing less apparent in my ears all say things have indeed changed. Yet I’m happy for each mark and sign that I’m aging, having had more than a glimpse of the alternative.

I’ve wrestled twice with cancer, this past year in my eye and 17 years ago in my breast, and in both situations, I thought of Jacob in the Old Testament, who shows us what it means to keep wrestling with whatever dangerous angel shows up until we can extract a blessing from the encounter. Other brushes with mortality have likely changed me more than the pull of gravity and other weathering of my body. Then again, such encounters are their own pulls of gravity. The fantastical magic of time is best understood in relationship to where we truly are, in a place, in a body, in a community, and mostly in relation to the here and now.

Which brings me around to this moment: the western horizon golds itself up into the darkening blue. The bare branches, finally still after a windy afternoon, hold birds roosting out of sight. The cats sleep on my bed between giving me dirty looks for being a few minutes late in feeding them. All over my time zone and in many others wheeling toward midnight, people are putting on sparkly shirts to go out or fluffy slippers before putting their feet up, a book balanced on their laps. All over the time zones already launched into 2020, people are sipping champagne or coffee or the bitterness of hunger, despair, and pain. All the same, many if not most humans probably have some awareness that it’s a new time, which is actually obviously always true but more clear to us at moments like this.

We travel together, arriving in our own time at what’s next, often not understanding fully how we got here, but knowing that gravity and that beautiful yearning to live and do something of meaning had something to do with it. May we all unpack ourself in the new year with greater kindness, peace, gratitude, and imagination.

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Thinking About the Kaddish and the Life Force: Everyday Magic, Day 991

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Kaddish, one of the core prayers in Judaism and more or less a call and response to the life force. It seems especially relevant now at the end of the year and the end of the decade when one stretch of time ends and another begins.

A moment of grace at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn

I’ve been Kaddish-prone for a while, but in putting together today’s burial service for Fred Lubin while thinking about his immensely loving family, I’ve re-discovered and learned anew some things about the Kaddish. Here’s what I wrote fro the burial after rooting around various prayerbooks (from the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative traditions) and here and there from the interwebs:

The Kaddish, a word that means “sanctification,” is one of the most beautiful, vital, and mysterious prayers in Judaism. This call to God is so central to Jewish prayers that the sages contended the whole world is sustained through chanting the Kaddish, which was/is believed to have magic power.

This prose-poem is also recited in Aramaic, the spoken tongue of ancient Jews as a way to collectively praise all that is alive and sacred while praying for peace — the peace that surpasses all understanding in our souls and in our world. Besides being a prayer, it’s also a Jewish tradition to call our children our Kaddish, the life that will (hopefully) live on beyond us, which is another dimension of celebration and remembrance.

Although the Kaddish is recited no less than 13 times in a traditional Jewish service, the Mourner’s Kaddish, the same Kaddish prayer, is said during the funeral and burial service of a Jew, then recited each Shabbat (Friday night) for a full year afterwards as well as on the Yahrzeit, the anniversary month of the beloved’s death. This helps remind the mourners that they are not alone and the community that people among them are carrying great love and grief in their hearts.

In reciting the Kaddish, we affirm all that is sacred in this world and invoke the transcendent power of love.

What more can I say except to share the Kaddish, first in Hebrew, then in English. To hear it read aloud, you can go to this video. You can also hear  a beautiful piece by Maurice Ravel entitled “Kaddish.” 

Kaddish

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

B’alma di v’ra chirutei,

v’yamlich malchutei,

b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon

uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,

baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach

l’alam ul’almei almaya.

Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar

v’yitromam v’yitnasei,

v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal

sh’mei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,

l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,

tushb’chata v’nechemata,

daamiran b’alma. V’imru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,

v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.

V’imru: Amen.

Oseh shalom bimromav,

Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,

v’al kol Yisrael. V’imru: Amen.

Now in English:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan.

May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,to which we say Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.

To which we say Amen.

Where Have You Gone?: Remembering Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 990

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my good friend Jerry, who died on December 13 five years ago. While revising my new collection of poetry, How Time Moves, for publication, I’m struck by how many poems I wrote about this dear friend, but then again, every time I drive down Massachusetts Street, past the apartment where he used to live, my heart still looks for his orange car. Here is one of the poems I’ve written about him.

Where Have You Gone?

For Jerry

Where have you gone, my little friend,

quiet in the corner of the couch, or standing

to hold me, your heart beating through mine?

Where are you hidden or hiding just now,

four months afterwards, three years later?

Are you closer or further or nowhere at all?

Is your absence a chickadee feather

in the paper litter of leaves or a raindrop

dissolving the gravel of the driveway?

Is the weather pleasant, the company entertaining,

the music a polka or waltz played on accordion?

Are you happy and out of pain?

Do you miss us, or is your mind more

like the space framed between cedar spires?

Can you fly, or is the question irrelevant?

How did you go from that hospital bed, old pal?

A leaf detaching, the cork loosening?

A branch bending with no apparent breeze

or weight of bird. A trick of faith

erasing you from our lives?

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What Can You See?: Everyday Magic, Day 989

“Has your sight come back?” people ask me. I try to find a normal way to answer an increasingly complex question because my sight in my right eye is in flux and over the cusp of legally blind. As many readers know, I’ve been on an ocular melanoma road trip through radiation, surgeries, and surprising bouts of, well, surprise. 

The medical answer is “kind of and not really” at once. As the radiation, removed from where it was inserted in my eye, continues its work, the tiny tumor behind my iris melts away. I envision it as an ice burg sloughing off its bulk over time. But what kills the tumor also can diminish my vision. Add in surgery-induced inflammation (hopefully mostly retreated now) and the new formation of a very faint cataract (something I had a 100% of getting after the treatment), and I don’t know how to explain my vision’s return or departure. My right eye has improved, going from 20/1500 to 20/200, but those numbers don’t mean much to me.

What do I see? With just my right eye, I can see the bedroom windows, the curtains pulled to the side, the sheen in the window glass made by the ceiling light’s reflection against the night sky. I can see the cat curled up in a ball on my bed, or is that my brown and white winter hat? I can see color and shapes, depth and layers, the difference between floors and walls, and the way the sky lays itself out in pink swirls on an almost-winter night. I also can see light spilling out from its normal containment in lamps or windshields, bigger and messier than light is to my left eye.

What I can’t see are distinct edges that strictly hold the purple and green quilt as one entity and the off-white wall as another. The dog morphs into the couch. My wedding ring and left hand seem to have always been one vibrant being even if the hand gets more wrinkled and the ring more shiny over time. When the day ends, the water of the pond begins, the fur of the kitty extends, the page of the book bends are just more enmeshed on a seemingly cellular level with the air that composes the space between things.

There’s a Rainer Maria-Rilke passage somewhere about how we teach our children and ourselves to look for the specifics within the open field — the tree, the rabbit, the flower — rather than looking into the open space itself. The mind has a hunger to name and categorize things, to know what’s what and who’s who. Rilke also speaks to how sight changes over time:

“I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to. I have an interior that I never knew of.” ~ Rainer Maria-Rilke

This comes home to me most when I’m moved by something, like last week the moment the Indigo Girls  performed my favorite song (“Prince of Darkness”) in concert, and my right eye started crying in joy and homecoming. My left eye rolled its eyebrow, wondering what was up with the right eye, but the right eye was too busy pouring its heart out. That’s what I see, my mostly blind eye opening my heart more deeply to the world.

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