Friday, September 19, 2014

Inch Thirty: My Facepalm Moment

I was recently invited to join a very small, very exclusive book club, an invitation I accepted with alacrity and gratitude. I don't know what the other two members call it, but I am calling it the Not Quite the End of Your Life Book Club, with a nod of the head to Will Schwalbe and his beautiful memoir of a similar name.

I'll write about the book club soon. This post is about my facepalm moment (yes, facepalm is usually written as one word) when I finished the most recent selection.

The book was Hyperion, the first of a four or five book series by Dan Simmons. Hyperion is science fiction work, a genre I almost never read. This one is cleverly crafted, with a framework based on The Canterbury Tales and with the poetry and persona of John Keats woven throughout.

It was the last two pages, however, that caused me to realize just how clueless I have been for the last half century.

Pilgrimages fascinate me. There is the Santiago pilgrimage. There is my pie pilgrimage. The Canterbury Tales are the stories of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, a shrine to the martyred Archbishop Thomas Becket. The characters in Hyperion are taking part in a pilgrimage, one that may end in the death of them all.

In the final scene, the Hyperion pilgrims are descending into the dark valley of their destination. One of them starts singing a tune to his infant daughter, an old, old tune from an Earth long gone. The other five pilgrims pick up the tune and the lyrics, and are soon stepping along with lighter hearts. As the path broadens, they shift from single file to six abreast, linking hands. "Still singing loudly, not looking back, matching stride for stride, they descended into the dark valley."

The song?

"We're Off to See the Wizard."

The allusion?

Dorothy (Judy), the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, arms linked, on the Yellow Brick Road headed to the Emerald City.

And my facepalm moment?


I have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz dozens of time. I have seen the MGM movie countless times and consider it my all time favorite movie. I mean, come on!

And after all those viewings and all those readings and all these years, I didn't get the pilgrimage theme? I didn't get that Dorothy and her traveling companions were on a pilgrimage to gain knowledge or understanding or self awareness to a shrine to a wizard who some doubted even existed? I didn't get even a hint of that?


Friday, September 12, 2014

Inch Twenty-Nine: Spilt Milk

Wednesday morning started with the brilliant idea of making the instant pudding first thing in the morning.

Let me explain. We have my parents over for supper one night a week, giving Dad a break from the almost constant care he provides for Mom. A staple at every meal is instant sugar-free pudding, a dessert that my dad, who is diabetic, can eat and one that my mom absolutely loves. I will not eat the stuff, but I am more than willing to provide an easy finish to the meal, one that Mom treats as a delightful discovery each week.

I mix the pudding in the blender, then pour it into individual serving cups. Not counting cleanup, we are talking about a couple of minutes of work. Thinking I'd get a jump on the late afternoon supper, I thought I'd prepare the pudding in the morning while the oatmeal cooked.

Two cups of milk, get ready to add the mix, WHY IS THERE MILK RUNNING ACROSS THE COUNTER?!

A swipe of my left hand saved the milk from cascading onto the kitchen floor. My right hand grabbed the blender and dumped it into the sink.

Two cups of milk down the drain, literally and figuratively.

It turns out that whoever reassembled the blender last put the rubber ring on the wrong side of the blade. No seal, lots of mess.

After wiping up the milk, then rinsing and reassembling the blender, we went ahead and ate breakfast, the oatmeal being long done. I stewed over the mishap while we ate. Lost time, lost milk, a mess to clean up, so much for planning ahead, and on and on. I even brooded over the fact that I don't even like this blender, it being an inexpensive (read "lightweight plastic") replacement for the heavier glass blender I used to have. (A blender that I shattered into a million pieces when I dropped it on the concrete basement floor several years ago, which caused me to reflect on why I even thought it was a great idea to move the blender to the basement to begin with.)

Then Joyce Yates, my son Ben's fifth grade teacher, popped into my head.

"Don't cry over spilt milk."

Joyce taught her students that maxim to give her students a quick way to move on from their mistakes. It was a handy lesson and a useful tool for a group of 10 and 11 year olds. Ben took it to heart enough that he quoted it back to me when I was stressed out over a mess I had made.

"Don't cry over spilt milk, Mom."

Joyce was right. That long-ago Ben was right. I stopped brooding, finished my breakfast, reassembled the blender, made the pudding, and moved on. Still not my favorite blender, still not how I planned on starting the day. But the pudding was done and I wasn't wasting more of my day crying over spilt milk.

And Mom's joy at supper when I brought the pudding out was unmistakable. "Oh, this is so good!" she exclaimed, digging her spoon in with glee.

And it was.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Inch Twenty-Eight: El Camino de los Pasteles (The Way of the Pies)

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the Santiago pilgrimage after being moved by a documentary about walking the Way. Someone commented on my post: Every day is a pilgrimage and each journey starts when you put your feet on the ground getting out of bed. It is easy to romanticize the Santiago trip, but I would recommend your own faith journey in your own home. That would be a real adventure, thought maybe not as scenic. 

The comment may have some validity, but it misses the point of my post. My post is about the act of pilgrimage, an act which is capable of transcending the walls of our houses or the boundaries of our neighborhoods. And while one can take a faith journey every day without ever leaving the block, that is not necessarily a pilgrimage. 

A pilgrimage is defined in various sources as a journey of moral or spiritual significance. Pilgrimages to sacred sites are elements of many religions. Consider Santiago, Mecca, Shikoku O-Henro, Bodh Gaya, Jerusalem. Individuals travel far and wide seeking enlightenment, peace, God, answers. Making a pilgrimage is such a deep-seated human response that I wonder whether it is bred into our bones. It is not about being scenic or being romantic; it is about the search and the discovery. 

H. Richard Niebuhr, a twentieth century Christian ethicist, observed that "pilgrims are poets who create by taking a journey." And Martin Buber, the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher, noted that "[a]ll journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." 

Leaving the house on a pilgrimage, be it to Santiago or to your elementary grade school, is an act personal and of possibly deep meaning to the traveler. 

When we went to Chicago in August, I was on a pilgrimage: el camino de los pasteles. The way of the pies. And like any pilgrim, I took my journey seriously, even though it had a lightheartedness to it. There were four sites I had scoped out before ever leaving home, wanting to sample the pie and the place.
The coconut cream at ¡Bang Bang!

The best pie in Chicago? ¡Bang Bang Pie!, hands down. Even without its delightful pie garden, Michael the owner and his crew turn out excellent pies. Everyone who worked there celebrated pies, from the young man at the counter who took our order to the young woman who delivered it while we waited in (where else?) the pie garden to Michael, who walked us out and talked to us about good pies. 

The spiritual heart of my pilgrimage, although I did not know it until I walked through the door and sat down, was Blue Sky Bakery. Ironically, it lacked pies (typically the crew bakes pies only by special order), but in taking a seat, I knew this was the purpose of my pilgrimage. 
Blue Sky Bakery

Martin Buber was right. I had not planned on the Blue Sky Cafe touching me so deeply that, even now, with these words, I can conjure up its close quarters. It turned out to be the secret destination, the poem I created by journeying there.

Why Blue Sky? Because of its mission to offer young adult offenders a chance at a different path, a pilgrimage to a new life, in a manner of speaking. And while I "knew" that about Blue Sky before I ever entered it, it wasn't until I sat down that I felt it.

This was a sacred space. This was the heart of my quest.

This was the secret destination unknown to me when I planned my pilgrimage. 

So why pies? Why mix the ordinary, the humble pie, with the sacred, the journey of spiritual significance?

Lots of reasons, starting with the fact that I bake a lot of pies. So many that I sometimes think I have internalized the meaning of baking and of offering pies, which I take seriously to be a mitzvah

Then there's community and my belief in my obligation to repair the breaks in the community (tikkun olam, again). More than any number of committee meetings, baking and sharing pies may offer some other route to wholeness, as evidenced by Blue Sky Bakery.
Blue Sky 

And to the extent that I have multiple roles in this community, there is no question that pie maker is one of them. While having a watch battery changed at the downtown jewelry shop recently, the owner and I started talking. When I mentioned that Warren at the Symphony was my husband, she looked at me and said, "Oh, you're the pie lady!"

The pie lady.

People see God in many forms and in many places. So if I see the Creator in a slice of pie, or in the sacred space of the Blue Sky Bakery, does that diminish the intensity of the journey or the sweetness of the pie? I think not.

Ramona just turned two, and one of the presents I sent out was a make believe baking set, including pretend cookie dough, a rolling pin, and a pie pan, complete with slices of pie. In this house, we have children's pie pans—patty pans, I'd call them—that probably predate Warren.

Perhaps I can set Ramona's feet on the way, the way of the pies. I would like to pass on that legacy. 

Practice your rolling, Ramona. You and Grandma April will make a real pie next time you are in Ohio. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Inch Twenty-Seven: O wonderful kittens! O Brush! O Hush!

Emails from either of my sons thrill me. A recent one from Ben sent me over the moon:

We thought you’d be happy to know that Ramona wants to read Color Kittens every night before bed.

The Color Kittens, with its vocative O, was written in the 1940s by Margaret Wise Brown, now better remembered for Goodnight Moon. It came out as one of the multitude of Little Golden Storybooks, those little cardboard books that grocers and five-and-dime stores stocked on spinning metal racks. Little Golden books made up a huge part of my library until I was old enough to get a library card and The Color Kittens, with its illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen, was an early acquisition.

I read my childhood copy of Color Kittens to pieces. When I stumbled across a reissue in my adulthood, I bought it—the same one I read to Ben and Sam—and wore it to pieces as well. (Somewhere in this house is that copy with duct tape holding it together.) A few years back I bought three copies, hard bound this time, and set them aside. One for Ben, one for Sam, one for me. Ben's copy went out to Ramona.

The color kittens are two kittens on a quest to make green paint. "Of course the kittens couldn't read," but that didn't stop them from knowing their colors or from working in a paint factory, judging by their outfits and by the smokestacks on factories in the background, the building churning out buckets and buckets of paint.

We Skyped with Ben, Alise, and Ramona this Sunday and Alise remarked that The Color Kittens was the last book they read Ramona before bed each night. Sometimes, she added, Ramona insisted on holding The Color Kittens afterwards, and would fall asleep clutching the book.

That, I said, is a photo they need to take and email to me.

There is a deep sense of continuity in knowing that my granddaughter loves a book that I loved deeply as a child (and still do). There is a bedrock sense of satisfaction in knowing that the same words that lit up my mind light up hers.

In The End of Your Life Book Club, author Will Schwalbe makes a heartfelt observation about reading, life, and death, one which I emailed to Ben in response:

Reading isn't the opposite of doing, it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I'll know that some of what made her goes with them: that some of my mother will live on in those readers.

Someday, sooner than I want, I will not know which books Ramona reads or which ones surround her as she falls asleep. Ramona and I may never have an intense conversation about books like the ones her father and I had in his childhood. But I am grateful beyond words knowing that the books I love, the ones I shared with my son, the ones I send out for my granddaughter, will carry a piece of my heart into Ramona's future.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Inch Twenty-Six: The Jew in the Pew

My friends Anne and Victor had their daughter, Sarah Jane, baptized this Sunday past.

The e-invite to the service showed up in early August, but I left it alone for the longest time. To say I had conflicted feelings about going would be an understatement. On the one hand, I love Anne and wanted to be there for what was clearly a meaningful and important ceremony for her.

On the other hand, Anne and Victor attend the church I grew up in, a church that left some significant spiritual scars on my soul. And regardless of what church I am in, I have noticed a growing discomfort with the liturgy.


In the end, I valued friendship over spiritual discomfort. I emailed Anne that I would be there.

I'll be the Jew in the pew, I wrote.

A longtime friend, knowing I had converted to Judaism many years ago, recently alluded to my conversion, adding that he assumed I'd done it because I was married to a Jewish man at the time.

Oh, no. Not at all. I was well down the path to conversion while still in high school, while still firmly ensconced within the walls of St. Mark's.

I'd already caught whiffs of Judaism in grade school, reading Sydney Taylor's All-Of-A-Kind Family series with its Jewish holidays and traditions. For a little girl in a very small town in a very straitlaced church, those books were a revelation. I knew that there were other churches in Delaware, starting with the large Catholic church one block away. But other religions? What was a shofar? What was a dreidel? What were the High Holy Days?

It was novelist Chaim Potok who blew open the doors to Judaism for me. A high school teacher put My Name Is Asher Lev in my hands, wanting me to read it to understand the soul of an artist. I was more fascinated with the struggle between Lev's artistic soul and his Jewish one. From that novel I went on read as many of Potok's novels as I could find, then jumped into books on Jewish faith and spirituality.

That was probably the true beginning of my conversion: when I began to seek out Judaism in earnest. By the time I actually began preparing for my formal conversion, I'd been a student of Judaism for the better part of a decade.

I practiced Judaism, in a manner of speaking, until about a quarter century ago. There were several factors, especially including the many years in which I lost so many pieces of my inner self. It is only in recent years, floating along in a sea of spiritual feelings, all the time drawing nearer to the shores, that I recognize the shores are the same ones I struck out for over 40 years ago.

I just finished reading The Magician's Land, the concluding novel of the brilliant Magician trilogy by Lev Grossman. I see a lot of myself in Quentin Coldwater, who found a life of passion in his books and eventually in his beliefs. I was especially satisfied that Quentin resolves the destruction of the other world, Fillory, by performing the ultimate act of tikkun olam and mending the broken world. Even at those points when I was the most distant from Judaism, I tried to practice tikkun olam. Sometimes when I look back at my past, I am able to see that tikkun olam is the one constant thread in my life no matter where or what I was. I believe firmly it is the thread that has drawn me back into the faith.

In the end, I am glad that I attending Sarah's baptism. She sailed through it without a peep, her eyes wide open as she took in the church. Anne wiped away tears as she and Victor and their son Sam sat back down. It was a heartfelt occasion.

And this Jew in the pew took it all in, hugged her friend, and then walked out of the church into the sunshine.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Inch Twenty-Five: Straws

It has been a bumpy couple of weeks since returning from Chicago. Two fellow columnists at The Myeloma Beacon died while I was away, which caused me to scrap the topic I'd plan to write about in August and write about dying and death instead. Death and dying still remain taboo topics by tacit agreement, even at a website dedicated to an incurable, terminal cancer. Cancerland has been a hotbed of activity lately for several friends, and I came back from our trip feeling as if everything had fallen apart while I was gone.

It turns out more than just Cancerland had fallen apart.

My aunt Ginger, who is meandering towards her 85th birthday, somehow gashed her leg while we were out of town. With her increasing dementia (the family curse), she could not remember how or when, but by the time we returned and I got her to her doctor, an infection had set in. There have been rounds of doctor visits, rounds of antibiotics, rounds of my stopping by daily to inspect and then bandage the wound. The physical stress has sent the dementia into a higher frequency, so I have taken control of the antibiotics, so she doesn't take too many in one day, as well as the bandages, tape, and topical ointment for her leg, so she doesn't redistribute the items throughout her apartment, an activity that caused me several merry mornings of "where did she put it today?" Ginger lives a block away, and I carry all the items, including the antibiotics, in a little blue bag. Our public schools went back into session last week, and as I trot back and forth between Ginger's apartment and our house, I feel like a school girl swinging her lunch bag.

In addition to my job at Juvenile Court, I recently took on a fast track court project at Municipal Court, where I used to work. I agreed to the project after a discussion about community legacy building with my good friend Doug, who lives in Cancerland. This new project is legacy building. I committed to the project before Chicago, which means I didn't yet know that the routine with Ginger was going to unravel at least for a few weeks.

Not that I'm counting days. Not really. I feel more like the proverbial camel with the bundles of straw mounting on its back.

My health continues to be baffling. Great lab results, inconsistent physical responses. Earlier this week, my oncologist listened to me, looked at the labs, and  then scratched his head. Who knows? Another round of Revlimid, another rounds of labs in a few weeks, another straw on the camel.

So when our almost-daughter Amy called or messaged me with a series of crises over the last ten days, that was the straw that broke this camel's back.

Wednesday night I collapsed into a puddle of tears. Yesterday, helped along by little sleep and miscellaneous medical issues, I just collapsed, period. At one point, I realized I was channeling essayist Jane O'Reilly, describing her own collapse. "Waaaaah," [Jane] wailed, "bills, soot, work deadlines, interpersonal relationships, urban woes, the meaning of life, inflation, equal rights, the human condition, woe, etc."

Okay, so I don't wail about soot and urban woes. Different lyrics, but the same melody. WAAAAAH indeed!

Earlier this week I finished reading Passages in Caregiving by Gail Sheehy. I cannot say enough about this book, other than I am buying it to own it. Reading Sheehy, I smacked my forehead at the obvious error in my thinking. I am the caregiver for Ginger, I am the caregiver for myself,  I am a caregiver for the court project. And as Sheehy stresses, over and over, the caregiver needs to take care of his or herself as part of the overall continuum of caregiving, which she compares to a labyrinth. Not a puzzle, not a maze, but a path that is not always visible or predictable. Taking a deep breath and a few steps back from the brink, I can see that I let the events and stresses of the last two weeks invade my personal realm. No wonder I collapsed. Protecting personal time and space, including time and space with Warren, is not only important but critical to my being able to take care of health issues, jobs, Ginger, and even the woebegone Amy.

When this camel's back broke, the straws went flying everywhere. Straw is slippery and hard to gather up and put back just as it was before. That's why in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa was so upset with Laura and Mary after they rolled down the straw-stack and scattered it in the barnyard. And straw imagery pops up in other places than on the camel. Straws in the wind are portents,  drawing straws signals choices.

I've got straws everywhere.  I may just fashion myself a straw hat and bracelet and go off to see the world.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Inch Twenty-Four: A Week Away

We were out of town all last week, starting Monday afternoon and ending the following Sunday. Most of the week was spent in Chicago, following a wedding in Cincinnati and a day in Columbus, Indiana. Most of the week was not related to our respective jobs for a change, although there was a "must attend" concert in Chicago. A dedicated chunk of time in Chicago was spent on pies, a topic I will revisit in a later post.

I found myself looking at bits of color and splashing water and pie, lots of pie. As I am still regaining my energy from the trip, I am resorting mostly to photos for the remainder of this post. Words will return next week.

Columbus, Indiana, is known worldwide for its amazing post-World War II architectural wonders, but my eyes were drawn to the fountains.

I wanted to sit under this spray, an act I suspect would have been frowned upon.

Columbus also had an amazing ice cream parlor, restored to its 1904 look, and we sampled the sundaes. But what really caught me eye were these guys on a vintage root beer container.

Who wouldn't want to be a satyr dancing around with a mug of root beer on a hot day?

I am always happy when in Chicago. There is lots of color there.

There is lots of water in Chicago. Some of it you just look at (suppressing the urge to crawl into it).

Chicago Botanic Gardens

I mean, come on! 

And some of it you get out and splash in.

Splash area at Millennium Park

This little guy toddled back and forth for over 30 minutes,  soaked and smiling.

Dorothy is in Chicago, along with the Scarecrow, Tim Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion.

We met up at—where else?—Oz Park.

And there is a lot of pie in Chicago.

A whole lot of pie.

Really, really good pie.

I'll be writing about pie next time. We all have our pilgrimages, and this was one of mine.