Monday, December 22, 2014

Inch Forty-Three: Time

As the year winds down, time and the passage of time are on my mind. Driving along the Olentangy River, I see the sycamores have emerged again, their trunks startling white against the grey-brown of the other trees lining the river. The crops are all in and grey-brown fields stretch to the horizon, the end of the season upon us.

It is that stub time of year, the last fleeting days of December, the day when darkness comes earlier and stays later.

Aunt Ginger is a reminder of the relentless roll of time. At 85, she is a diminutive version of the woman she was at 80. Her step is shakier, her mind is shakier, and when I look at her, I am aware of a fragility that was not there five years ago. I told Warren that Aunt Ginger is becoming translucent.

Ginger is down to the stub time of her life. She speaks occasionally of where she is, not with despair, but with amazement. "85!" she'll exclaim. "I never thought I'd live this long!"

The press of time is on lots of minds this time of year. I avoid shopping malls as a matter of belief year round, but especially at this time of year. All the same, one Saturday a few weeks ago found me at a Target shopping for a menorah. There was a palpable tension in the air as shoppers tried to find that perfect gift, all of them aware of the clock ticking towards Christmas. My cashier commented that she hated this time of year. She was pleasant, but clearly she was already counting the days until the store closed on Christmas Eve and the rush was over.

That cashier was down to the stub time of the holiday shopping season, not to mention the stub end of her patience.

Even avoiding the worst of the commercial feeding frenzy, I find this time of year has a rushed, harried quality to it. Being married to a performer and the Symphony, I find my time gets squeezed between rehearsals and performances. Warren's schedule is even worse and he tends to take December on a dead run. There have been days that we have peered blearily at one another, wondering what day it is, how late the evening will go, and what absolutely needs to be done at home versus what can be put off for another day. Warren's last performance was on December 19, and both of us felt tremendous relief when the conductor put down the baton.

On the shortest day of the year, I took a solitary walk around a nearby park in the chill afternoon. The loop I walk follows the Olentangy briefly, and I noted again the sycamores. In the evening, I lit the menorah for the sixth night of Hanukkah and watched the candles burn steadily. In the corner, the Christmas tree was had just bought and decorated that morning was aglow with its own lights.

Endless time: the passage of the seasons, the winter solstice, the wheeling around of the sun and moon that brings the winter holidays back to us again.

Thoreau observed that "time is but the stream I go a-fishing in." In these eternal moments of light and dark, the stream I go a-fishing in is deep, and its bottom strewn with stars.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Inch Forty-Two: My Cup (And My Candles) Runneth Over

In my post last week, I worried that I would not be able to find a menorah and Hanukkah candles easily this close to the holiday. The rehearsal/concert schedule is so fierce and time is so limited. Between last Thursday at 5:00 p.m. and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Warren was home for approximately 22 hours, about 18 of which were when he was asleep. From Friday at 5:00 p.m. until Sunday at 7:00 p.m., I was home approximately 17 hours, 12 of which were spent sleeping. So there was no time to try finding one at a synagogue shop in Columbus (many of which would close Friday and not reopen until Sunday, if then). No time then, no time even this week until the weekend is upon us and Hanukkah half over.

My one faint hope was that Saturday afternoon, while Warren was in rehearsal, I could drive to the Mansfield Target and find one. I did not call ahead to ask as I had a few other purchases regardless of the success of the hunt and I did not want my hopes dashed.

Not that I had high hopes.

Target was packed. The Christmas area (where I was in search of a small tabletop tree for Aunt Ginger) was a madhouse. I found the tree, found the cheese grater that Sam had asked for in kitchenwares. But no menorahs.

There were lots of people but no clerks. I took one final stroll down the front aisle, and caught sight of a large cardboard Hanukkah sign topping the end of one row of cards.

I held my breath, walked quickly, and...


Menorahs. I quickly selected one, grabbed a box of Hanukkah candles, and sailed through checkout, menorah AND Christmas tree in hand.

When Warren and I met after the rehearsal, I told him I'd been successful. "It's just a relief," I said, adding that he'd see the menorah when we got home.

Warren didn't see the menorah until Sunday evening, Sunday performance demands (A church service! Two Concerts!) being what they were. I showed him and we talked a little about Hanukkah, which he has never seen celebrated. Then he said, quietly, "If you didn't find one this weekend, I was going to make you one. I wasn't sure how, but I wanted you to have a menorah."

That, my dear readers, is one of many reasons why I married the man. Because he was ready and willing to make me a menorah just so I didn't have to miss out on Hanukkah.

It turns out someone else was concerned I would miss out on Hanukkah. When I arrived at work mid-morning, I found this in my office:


Really? For me?

I had tears in my eyes, looking at it. I was pretty sure who made it, and a co-worker confirmed that my friend and colleague Anne had placed it there earlier this morning.

When I saw Anne, she said she and her son Sam had put it together this weekend. "I didn't want you not to have a menorah," she said, adding that she had read my blog and felt she had to do something. She knew tea candles were not quite the right thing, but she had the number of candles, and, more important, the spirit and intent of it just right. "I'll make the candles work," I assured her.

 Hanukkah is all about miracles. Love—the love of my husband, the love of my friend—made its own miracle for me this year. This year I will be lighting two menorahs to celebrate the holiday, celebrate the light, celebrate the love, celebrate the miracles.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Inch Forty-One: The Tiniest Bit of Light

As I recently emailed one friend, as we tried to find a common date when we could all get together, it's that most wonderful time of the year...except when it is not. I'm in the midst of the "not" right now.

While the oral chemotherapy regimen continues to go well ("well" being a very relative term), a constant side effect of both it and ten years of myeloma is fatigue. Deep-in-the-bones fatigue. Fatigue way past something a short nap or a good night's sleep helps. Fatigue pretty much owns me.

That ownership, in turn, impacts what I am able to accomplish on any given day. Despite my best efforts, despite pacing myself, I still get to the late afternoon and start taking items off of my to-do list. For example, I had hoped after work to (a) visit Aunt Ginger (I was way overdue to check in on her, thanks to fatigue), (b) deliver a batch of cookies as a holiday gift to a friend, (c) bake another batch of biscotti (maybe two) for some other holiday gifts, (d) pack a box of items to ship to Alise for her agency's holiday gifting for the families they serve, and (e) finish peeling and slicing the culled apples (which have been on the floor of the percussion room since Sunday) so that I can get them bagged and frozen for National Pie Day in January.

I made it to Aunt Ginger's apartment for an upbeat visit and I got the box packed and ready to ship. It is just now eight p.m. and if I rouse myself from the couch, I may get the apples peeled, sliced, and in the freezer.

Or I may not.

I am still hoping to observe Hanukkah this year, although as I type these words, I lack a menorah and candles and am not sure I can easily find any at this late date. Hanukkah starts at nightfall on December 16. I already know I will not get any candles lit until later that evening because our last legal clinic of 2014 is that same evening.

The beauty of Hanukkah is that the half hour or so spent watching the candles burn down all but guarantees a small, distinctly carved island in time. You are forced, gently and with flickering lights, to slow down, to ease up, to rest. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner said it best: "At the darkest time of year, the tiniest bit of light reminds us that we are all whistling in the dark and hoping, by these rituals of miracles of candlelights and bulbs on evergreens, we remember the divine presence."

I'll be looking for that tiniest bit of light come December 16. I may have the fatigue of a shipwreck survivor by then, but I plan on being on that island, hugging the sand, grateful to be washed ashore.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Inch Forty: Furniture

November was a stressed and hectic month in the family. My mother had a long-overdue knee replacement early in the month, and the triple whammy of major surgery, great pain, and dementia took a toll on all of us, but especially my father. While he was relieved of the 24/7 duty of steering my mom through the day, he all the same spent a huge number of hours by her side as without him to interpret the world for her, she is increasingly lost as to day, time, conversations, and events.

One day early in the nursing home stay, my dad and I went room to room in the upstairs of their house looking for a sewing box that is apparently non-existent now. (And where is the button tin, I wonder?) We opened countless dressers and bureaus looking for the safety pins I had hoped to find in the sewing box.

We never found the pins. But we did find drawer after drawer of abandoned projects: plastic canvas and yarns, aging sewing patterns, brightly colored material that may have been meant for a quilt. Dad quietly observed that my mother would never finish these now and I was almost tempted to offer to clear them all away, but wisely kept my mouth shut.

As we finished opening and searching the last drawer, Dad commented that he had an upstairs "full of old furniture." He's right. One room contains a stout bureau, stripped and refinished, that in my childhood had been a battered glossy white with a Roy Rogers decal on the top drawer right between the two pulls. Then there is the bureau at the top of the stairs, with drawers ranging from shallow at the top to deeper at the bottom on the left half, the right side being a door that swings open to reveal a large storage area without shelves or divisions. It is a dark piece and the wood of the door is very thin. When I was young, my mother stored flannel sheets and blankets on the right side.

I always liked that piece of furniture. There would have been a time in my life when I would have loved to have had that piece in my own home for sentimental reasons. But none of the furniture was ever proffered to any of us and it has all set in the empty upstairs for long years.

And now I am of an age and at a place in life when acquiring furniture, even childhood pieces, holds no appeal for me. I want less stuff, not more. I cannot imagine passing these pieces on to my children. In addition to the cost and risk of shipping them west, these pieces hold no emotional weight for Ben or Sam because they didn't grow up with them like I did.

I do not know how much longer my parents will remain in the house. It is a large, old, limestone structure, the second floor and basement out of reach of my mom, the bathroom a tiny, narrow add-on long after the original house was built. When they bought it in 1970, both my parents were in their 30s, with younger children, plenty of energy, and lots of dreams. That was almost 45 years ago. Now it is obvious that the house was not built for an elderly couple, one of whom has mobility problems. Dad has observed more than once that the house and yard (an acre) and outbuildings are increasingly more than he has the time and strength to tackle on a daily basis. Time, especially as my mother's needs grow, will be at an even greater premium than it already is, and the deep reserves of energy and plans my parents both once possessed have long been spent.

And when my parents do leave the house? There'll be an upstairs full of old furniture along with everything else: abandoned crafts and abandoned dreams, old blankets and old photographs, and the faint whisper of memories.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Inch Thirty-Nine: Back to the Books

Last week was the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Indianapolis. This is an event I have always enjoyed. Always.

I struggled this year.

It is not the Percussion Universe that has changed. It is I who have changed.

At 58, I am tired. A lot more tired than at 51, which is how old I was when I first attended PASIC. And trust me, by PASIC standards, 58 is not old. I saw percussionists with 20 or more years on me playing away with vigor and enthusiasm and skill. At 58, I have seven more years of myeloma under my belt, seven more years of aging family issues, seven more years, period. I spent most of the convention stumbling around in a daze, dozing off in concerts and quiet spaces.

Indianapolis was extremely cold (cold, cold, cold) and windy this time. That made walking from the parking lot to the convention center an exercise in arctic tolerance. It made walking the one block from the convention center to a nearby museum a study in pain. I lingered long in the museum as much to avoid the frigid walk back as to view the collection. The cold didn't help my condition: I couldn't comfortably go outside and walk off my lethargy.

The convention Focus Day this year was new music and new music notation. We did not arrive until the day after Focus Day, but Warren and I caught one of the last performances on that theme, seeing several ensembles perform short works. There was a lot of clattering, quiet, loud, but clattering. The endless high school debate of "what is Art?" came to mind. You remember: Is a painted tennis shoe glued to a blank canvas art? Is a painted tennis shoe glued to a blank canvas by Pablo Picasso art?

Is a collection of noises, interesting though they may be, music? Judging by the rapt audience and the intensity of the performer rubbing his hand over a bass drum head, I'd say at least a sizable portion of the audience would say it was. (It pleased me that after that particular piece, the performer tripped over a music stand on his stage exit, threw up his hands with a grin, and became engagingly human.)

Not only did I not get the new music, I also didn't get the styles of the performances. The next ensemble was equally serious and intense, without the humanizing trip and grin. After a player would strike a bell or a bar, it was as if the air would become viscous and the player would lift high his or her arm with great effort before bringing it down through the same solemn atmosphere to strike another note. After a brief interlude that required very robotic movements, one of them struck another bell and they all switched back to the languid, slow arm movements.

I sat there in my stupor and wondered about the choreography. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were a bunch of lotus-eaters. Did the performers create this? Did the ensemble director dream it up? I could not imagine the composer writing in "lift right hand slowly overhead as you strike the note," but Warren said later it likely was the composer.

Really? Really? 

In the end, the one performance that stuck with me and roused me from my daze was by a four-man ensemble, Architek Percussion, performing "Spinefold" by James O' Callaghan. They sat at a table, each with a hard-cover book before him, and played. The work was a series of synchronized sounds from the book: pages flipping, covers being slapped, books opening and shutting.

I grinned watching it.

PASIC, and by extension the Percussion Universe, is seeing an electronic proliferation, including using iPads and computers in performances.  Drums and percussion instruments are tangible objects that make sounds when shook, struck, tapped, or otherwise handled. The lure of the electronic is all the sounds that a human can't make (or can't make easily indoors or under concert conditions). I have seen some clever and imaginative pieces using iPads.

And here were four guys, sitting at a table, putting on a performance with four books (this is an earlier performance, not the PASIC concert):



Four guys, four books.

Maybe that was why the piece was so engaging for me. Books! Something I am never without, something I hold in my hand every single day. I carried two with me to PASIC, one of which I read curled up on a chair in a lounge, the other of which I got a good start on. Trust me, the percussionists flowing by me never registered that I was reading. They were too busy tapping, discussing, analyzing, playing, to notice a book.

Books, books, books. Something tangible, something old school, something that the late, sometimes great John Updike predicted would not last long into the new century. Clearly he had underestimated the visceral appeal of a book.  Clearly Updike had not anticipated "Spinefold." You can play an app or read a book on your iPad, but you can't smack it shut or thump it on the table.

In the end, as I drove home across the Indiana landscape, I carried away the sound of those books, books being played, books as music, books.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Inch Thirty-Eight: Dust of Snow

We had our first major snow of the season last night, a storm that dumped four or so inches on us. Early this afternoon, the snow tapered off, the skies cleared, and the sun beamed. I had a meeting downtown at 2:00, so I bundled up and starting walking, figuring it to be a nice day.

What I had not counted on was the wind picking up, shaking snow from the trees onto cars, sidewalks, and me. There was no way to dodge the blown snow, which ranged from a sprinkle to large clumps. I kept brushing it off, trying not to slow my stride, hoping nothing larger than a small handful fell my way.

The last gust was particularly zestful, and I found myself enveloped in a brief whirl of snow, just enough to dust me thoroughly. I found myself thinking of Robert Frost and his poem "Dust of Snow."


The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.


As it so happened, there was a crow in a nearby pine (maybe a hemlock), cawing at me or the wind or the snow or all three of us.

Robert Frost, who took his own pleasure in cold and dark and snow, is good and out of fashion in many circles these days. In fact, poetry as a subject is pretty much out of fashion in our schools and modern curricula. Small wonder that seven years ago, when teenagers vandalized Frost's house in New Hampshire, they had no idea who Frost was, let alone the significance of his contribution to American literature.

By the time I finished my meeting, the day had gone gray again and the temperature had dropped several degrees. My walk home was brisk; I pushed myself to reach the warmth of the house as soon as possible. The crow had gone silent; perhaps it had taken shelter deeper in the tree, huddling against the cold.

I thought about my walk once I was back inside. I had no day to rue. Just a dust of snow and a crow cawing vociferously and a long-dead poet who accompanied me downtown and back.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Inch Thirty-Seven: Family Ties Rebound

When you get a divorce, you usually snap family ties and connections that have been in place five years, ten years, twenty years. The sister-in-law, the nieces and nephews, whomever—they all go back to the other side.

And then something happens, independent of the divorce, that reconnects you with those one time family members, and you take up once again, in some new form, the ties that once bound and then came unbound, and rebind them.

I have written about this before, when I found myself reconnecting with my first mother-in-law and a former sister-in-law. Through the wonders of Facebook, I had already created some electronic ties with members of Ben and Sam's paternal family. I see the photos of their children, stay in remote touch with a "like" here or a brief comment there. I have sent presents to Eric's baby girl. These are small ties that would not have been possible in the past: the remote but personal connection.

These past two weeks, I have been in close contact with nieces and nephews, cousins of Ben and Sam, with whom I have not spoken in a decade or more.

Marisa contacted me first. She had some questions she wanted to bounce off of me—a request I could and did not deny, unusual only in that it has been so long since we talked. Her voice spilled through the phone—the same vibrant, rich, upbeat voice I had known so long ago. We talked, I listened, I commented, and when in passing she mentioned one of her cousins and a family health crisis, I sent off a FB message to that former nephew and got a quick response.

And then Waldo died. Waldito, my former brother-in-law.

By the time I got through absorbing that news, I had more messages. What was my phone number?Waldo Enrique (the oldest son) wanted to call me.  Would that be okay? And when my cell lit up later than evening with a number I did not recognize, I was pretty sure who it was.

"Hello, April?"

"Waldo."

Waldo may have been the first I met of the eleven nephews and nieces that were part of my husband's family. I don't remember. Waldo was always good-natured and sweet-voiced. And here he was again, only now he is 48 instead of 16. Now he is the father of a 15 year old, instead of the teen himself. And now, as he reminded me laughing, "we are getting old, April."

He called because I had posted my thoughts about his father's death on Facebook. I wrote:

I just received word this morning that my former brother-in-law, Waldo De Castroverde, died yesterday. I am filled with memories of many, many occasions spent with him and Vivian, his wife, and their children, Waldo Enrique, Ana, Alex, and Orly (now Orlando).
This is a picture of Waldo and Sam playing chess at our house in 1996. He and Vivian were in the Midwest to watch their son Orly wrestle and drove over from somewhere (Iowa, I believe) to visit. Sam was not quite six and lost the match. Ben, who was 10, ended up beating Tio Waldo and that was the end of the chess for the night!

Waldo grew up in Cuba and was committed to seeing Cuba becoming a true democracy, first by opposing the dictator Batista and then by opposing the dictator Fidel Castro. Waldo was one of 1400 Cuban exiles who made up the military force that took part on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As a prisoner, Waldo was part of a group of captured soldiers selected by Fidel to go to the U.S. to negotiate a ransom agreement with the Kennedy administration to free all of the captured soldiers. When negotiations failed, Waldo was sentenced to a 30-year prison term, of which he served 20 months before being released in late December 1962. While in prison, Waldo debated Fidel about democracy, communism, and freedom. He loved to recount that story.
Waldo never gave up his dream of a free Cuba, and had the Castro regime fallen, Waldo would have returned to his beloved homeland to help rebuild the country. One of his nicknames was “El Presidente” and there is no doubt in my mind that he would have run successfully for high office.
I was fortunate enough to know Waldo and to join his family on many occasions for holidays, debates, meals (Waldo could outcook anyone and his paella Cubana was the best in the world), and special occasions. He loved his family, he loved intellectual discourse, he loved to read, he loved the United States, and he loved Cuba—what it was and what it had the potential to become. Waldo loved to debate anyone on any topic, and as the debate gained momentum, he would suddenly switch from English to Spanish, which served to increase both the volume and speed of the debate. When he was in his 40s, he fulfilled a lifetime dream of becoming a lawyer, and practiced for the next several decades first alone and then with his two younger sons. I have to imagine he was a whale of a lawyer and I would to have loved to have seen him give closing argument.

Waldo and I talked for several minutes about his father, about his parents, about his siblings, about all the things you talk about when there is a hole in the family fabric, even though I cut my own hole in that family when I divorced Waldo's uncle. It didn't make a difference.

Ties that bind, ties that are unbound, and family that picks up those ties and ties them anew.

Friday, November 7, 2014

One Yard: On Writing



Back in March, I set myself a goal of writing a blog post a week. Almost eight months later, I have written thirty-six of them, a whole yard of posts marking the passage of time.

I'm not sure I have much more to say about it than that. When I began, even a foot of posts seemed improbable, given my intermittent postings over the prior months. I am still challenged by finding the right place for writing in my daily life. I still chastise myself for continuing to write mostly in the margins of my days. I think of the poet William Stafford, who would rise early each morning, light a small lamp to see by, kindle a fire if it were cold, make himself comfortable, and then sit in the dark, quiet house and write.

In recounting that story to my friend Margo, I added "I'm not getting up at 5:30 to write."

And therein lies the rub. Stafford addressed that point, as his son Kim captured so clearly in a memoir about his father: "We are not practicing to be writers; we are entering into the practice of being writers, revising our very lives, yielding in each moment to the vocation that demands our deepest allegiance." (From Early Morning by Kim Stafford)

A variation on that thought is found in Simple Living by Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska: ""It's the peculiar notion held by so many that you spend the lion's share of your life wanting to do something else...before you get to the sliver reserved for the 'real you.'"

In short, writing is what writers do.

I can tick off a handful of reasons without even pausing as to why I don't write more frequently. I work at Juvenile Court, I volunteer at the Legal Clinic, I have regularly blood work and oncology appointments, I am working on a special court project on a contract basis for our local Municipal Court, I am married to a man with an overly busy schedule, I bake, I sit on our Civil Service Commission,  I am the caretaker for an aging aunt, I am married to the Symphony.

And I write in the margins of my life.

I have a good friend who also writes in the corners of her daily existence. Cecelia's life is immensely crowded with a young family, school events, parish commitments, a husband whose job takes him out of town, and a full-time job. I am a lady of leisure compared to her. She and I are talking about making a commitment to each other to write x times a week and each of us encouraging the other to write. She has some ideas in her head and on paper; I have a juvenile novel one-third written and the rest hanging out there somewhere.

Is x too many times? Realize that x is an unknown. Does x=2? Does x =3? Let's say x=2. If I write my blog post and my Myeloma Beacon column in the same week, have I met my minimum quota (x)? Or does x represent one blog post and working on my novel? And if I write only five minutes on my novel, is that writing? (One of the many great things about Cecelia is that she puts herself through these same mental paroxysms, so we understand each other perfectly.)

Solve for x.

In the end, it comes down to making writing work in my day. Or, truthfully, making a commitment to writing. Just not at 5:30 a.m.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Inch Thirty-Six: Dark

The lights went out last night. Not just in our house, or just on our block, but all over town and out into the county. It was still dusk when the power quit, so there was more than enough time to gather candles and start lighting them. I set out a flashlight as well, but planned on relying on the candles to get me through the evening.

Warren headed off to a downtown meeting; I settled in at the kitchen table to use the last of the evening's light while I wrote up oncology notes and then started in on some letters to friends.

The first thing you notice when all the lights are out is how quiet it is. The house was silent: no refrigerator humming, no dehumidifier kicking on in the basement. The candles sputtered and hissed from time to time, but that was a quiet noise, a little noise. My pen moving across the surface of the note paper was the loudest sound in the kitchen.

After I finished the first letter, I took a flashlight and walked out onto our back deck, turning it off after I got outside. By now it was very dark. There was enough evening light in the sky—a little sliver of a new moon caught in some wispy clouds—that I could just make out the bulk of the house next door. I could see some dim, hulking shapes in the backyard: our large pines and, beyond that, more black mass than anything, what I knew to be the rear of our neighbor's mansard-roofed Italianate house.

But otherwise dark. No ambient light from the downtown, no streetlights. Just dark.

Deep darkness and night—true night—are lost pieces of the past for most of us. Unless we are out in a wilderness or other very remote area or are experiencing a power failure, there is always light somewhere, even out in the country. We gain the security—real or imagined—of artificial light, but we lose something in return. We lose the mysticism of night, seeing the stars and the moon gleaming brighter overhead. We lose the night sounds that we hear more acutely without the visual distractions.

And maybe we lose the sense of our place, accustomed as we are to electric lights and televisions and computers. I noticed that many of our neighbors, arriving home in the dark, immediately left and did not return until later. Maybe they were in search of a hot meal, but maybe they just didn't like being in the dark without the blink of a screen.

Roger Ekirch wrote a history of night,  At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, in which he explores the relationship of humans to night. Ekirch did an excellent job of charting the mysterious and often ominous roles night and darkness played in European and colonial America. Night was not all evil: Ekirch also wrote of the home and social conventions that grew out of gathering together to share a fire, a game of cards, a festival, a story.

Standing on the deck in the dark, sensing rather than seeing the shapes before me, I had a faint idea of Ekirch's fascination with night.

I had just noted in a second letter that I was writing by candlelight, not because I wanted to play at being Ma Ingalls but because of the power outage when the power came back on with a whoosh of appliances. Suddenly the house seemed impossibly bright. I went outside and saw lights dotting the neighborhood once again, from lamps burning brightly in windows to the Halloween decorations next door glowing bright orange. Warren came in shortly afterwards: his meeting was held by flashlight. Our City Council managed to meet in the dark as well. Friends reported children playing in the yards by the light of glow sticks.

After the lights came back on, the night went on without a hitch and our lights stayed on until we turned them off for bed. The dark, the mysterious and impenetrable dark, was gone.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Inch Thirty-Five: Romance

The young (in her mid-twenties) woman was lamenting the progress of her romantic life. She and the object of her affections (same age) texted or messaged one another often, but she didn't know whether he shared her feelings, which she never revealed in the texts. She said he did not always reply to her texts and sometimes he would comment on others' Facebook posts while failing to respond to her messages. (Mind you, many of these "conversations" fall into the "hey, whatcha doing?" category.)

She agonized over whether to continue to text him. You couldn't ever tell what someone was really saying in a text, she observed.

He lives down the street from her. I suggested she knock on his door and invite him for a walk. As in "oh, hey, I'm just walking by and wondered if you'd like to join me?"

Her eyes widened in alarm. A face to face encounter?!

Well, I said, you could do it the old fashioned way and write him a note. Not a lengthy letter, not a love letter, but just a "maybe I'll stop by one day and we can go for a walk!" type note. Or send him a funny Halloween card.

Now the young woman looked positively ill.

Send him a card? How weird was that? That was just too strange.

At this point, I rolled my eyes and asked my friend if she had ever read Little Women. No. Well, you should, I said, and proceeded to tell her about Meg's glove.

If you have read Little Women as many times as I have, you will remember that one summer day, Meg lost a pair of gray cotton gloves in the conservatory of the Lawrence residence. Only one was ever returned. Months later, on a fall day, Laurie reveals to Jo the location of the missing glove. His tutor, John Brooke, has been carrying it around all this time. Jo is upset.

          "Where?"

          "Pockets."

          "All this time?"

          "Yes; isn't that romantic?"

          "No, it's horrid."

He carried her glove? The young woman looked at me incredulously. Why would he do a stupid thing like that? Clearly the romance of Mr. Brooke's gesture was lost on her, much as it was lost on Jo.

I related the story to Warren, musing out loud that Louisa May Alcott used the same romantic gesture in An Old-Fashioned Girl. Tom carries "my Polly's rose" in his wallet when he goes away to work off debt and redeem himself, while Polly keeps a clip of Tom's hair, a button from his coat, and a boyhood  picture of him in a locket. Only when they finally admit their love for one another does each reveal the token that kept hope alive.

Warren was quiet. "Well, I kept those photographs all those years."

He's right. I had taken a shot of his foot back in high school, never daring to take a photograph of his face, and had made a print of it for him. I had also taken a photo of his first car, a Volkswagen Bug, and given him a copy. Warren had hung onto them through the decades. He still has them.

And for my part, for the very longest time, I had a scrap of a broken Remo drumhead that Warren had given to me during his senior year marching season. I kept it in a small box of mementoes and would never see that ragged piece without thinking of Warren and those long ago hopes, hoping he was well, hoping he was happy.

The course of true love never did run smooth, according to Shakespeare, and any of us can easily attest to that. The age in which we live now—with texts and messaging and the expectations that responses will be instantaneous—adds an extra kink to that course. There is something to be said for not having an immediate response, for carrying the glove in the pocket, the rose in the wallet, the hope in the heart.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Inch Thirty-Four: By Hand

Some nights, later in the evening, when he isn't working in his shop or practicing or writing a grant until one a.m., Warren will visit some favorite woodworking websites, sometimes watching videos he finds on those sites. I am often in the same room—our downstairs study—albeit usually reading a book or writing. His videos do not interrupt me, but neither do they interest me.

One caught my ear the other night, though. The video was an interview with Curtis Buchanan, a man who has been making chairs by hand, one at a time, for almost thirty years. He talked about how he got into the business, about how he learned to build chairs, about the art of working by hand with hand tools.

I started listening and then took some notes. Buchanan talked about why he used hand tools instead of power tools, which would undoubtedly speed up the process of making the chairs. Using an electric drill "doesn't add anything to my day." He liked "the pace hand tools set—it allows me to keep control of my day."

Buchanan is satisfied with his life and his livelihood. He used the word "contented," adding that he thought "contendedness was vastly underrated." He hoped to make chairs for another thirty years. The key, he said, to making a chair or anything else for that long a timeframe was to "just go down to the shop every day and work and eventually it'll work out. Eventually, it'll get there."

As I looked over the quotes I'd jotted down, I recognized that they also applied to writing. I'd just had an email exchange with a colleague who was incredulous to learn that I still did much of my writing longhand. "Loose (sic) the pen and paper!" he exhorted.

I penned out this post on a late Wednesday evening while Warren was at rehearsal. As I type it up tonight, he is at dress rehearsal for the opening of the season tomorrow. The first two of four pies are baking. It is quiet. I am sitting in our small downstairs study, typing on a laptop. My notebook with the draft of this post is close at hand.

Buchanan is right. My pen, like his handheld tools, allows me to keep control of my writing and my pace. I could use the computer, the equivalent of an electric drill, to draft this post or any other writing, but it wouldn't add anything to my day. I suspect it would have the opposite effect and diminish my day. For me, the physical act of writing both soothes and stimulates me.

I am contented, a word I recently used to describe myself. And being contented is vastly underrated. It's not exciting, it's not active, it's not partying or shopping or carrying on. When coworkers ask me what I did all weekend, I know many of them are baffled when I say "I had a great weekend. I stayed home and didn't do much of anything."

I have yet to adopt on a daily basis the rest of Buchanan's advice, the piece about going to the shop—in this case, my notebook—and working every day. I have no doubt it would make me a stronger writer. It would, I am sure, also make me a more contended one.

My colleague meant to tell me to "lose" my pen. By inadvertently typing "loose the pen" he may have been on to something else entirely. If I would loose my pen daily, my writing would eventually work out. And I would be content.

I'll stake my hopes on Buchanan's final words: it'll get there. His chair, my writing: it'll get there.




Thursday, October 9, 2014

Inch Thirty-Three: Art


Some years ago, someone asked me the following question: If I had extra money, what would I spend it on?

This individual's tastes ran towards the luxurious: many meals in expensive restaurants, travel to exotic parts of the world, pricey events (sports, theatre, music), and lots (and lots) of clothing purchases.

In short, not a lifestyle I could even begin to understand, let alone appreciate.

In retrospect, I realize now that the question was posed a bit cruelly. The inquisitor was trying to make me acknowledge the spareness of my lifestyle. What was really at the heart of the question was this: Come on, April, admit you'd like to live a more comfortable lifestyle, but you just can't afford it, so you just pretend you aren't interested.

I didn't rise to the bait, even when the followup comment was along the lines of did I ever think about being more ambitious and earning more income? Expensive meals, box seats for the Broadway touring company, splashy high dollar events for this or that campaign or cause—none of it appealed to me.

My answer, more or less, was that if I had "extra" money, I'd give more to causes I cared about. And if I had an indulgence, it would be to buy some art. Not drop a bundle, but occasionally buy a piece that I really liked.

Many years later, my answer remains pretty much the same. Now that my income has stabilized (thanks in part to great health insurance), I do have a little more money. I do donate here and there to causes I care about. I do have a little more breathing room on the budget than I used to.

But what about that art?

Last week I was sitting with a friend in one of our downtown coffee shops. High on the wall I was facing, up above a cupboard full of teas, half hidden by the cupboard's crown, was a painting I could not stop staring at.

The artist is local and her work hangs on all of the shop's walls. She paints on a crumpled surface: water colors on thick paper? I don't know. I can't tell. Her pictures are simple: a boot, a rooster, a beach scene, a dandelion puff.

And a sunset of gold and white. Over the marshes, over an ocean, over a prairie lake. Somewhere.

My eyes kept going to the painting. Before I left the shop, I looked to make sure it did not have a "Sold" sticker on it. It did not.

I came home later that day and told Warren I was buying a painting the next time I went there for coffee. I tried to describe it and gave up. He raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything else. We have been together a long time and Warren is accustomed to offbeat comments about a bit of poetry, the Wizard of Oz, and other odds and ends. So now April's buying a picture she can't describe? Okay.

I was back today to meet another friend. After she left, I went up to the cash register.

"I want to buy one of the paintings," I said, my heart thumping in anticipation.

"Which one?"

"The one on that wall." Pointing.

The owner's face broke into a smile. "Oh, I love that one."

Me too.

Five minutes later, I was on my way out the door, the painting in my hands.

Right now all of our first floor walls are bare, stripped last spring in the rush of renovations before Ramona arrived. As I write this, the painting is propped up on the sofa and I am sitting directly across from it.

It was a splurge, a $70.00 splurge. That is a little more than one month's water bill, a little more than two months of Revlimid.

A little splurge. And a whole lot of joy.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Inch Thirty-Two: Scraps

It is Friday midday as I sit down to type this. We have a weather front moving through: warm temps, intermittent winds and rain. I walked downtown midmorning to meet a good friend for coffee. I had my umbrella, which I used most of the way coming and going. As I walked along, I marveled at the tree, the green leaves giving way to the reds and the oranges, the leaves in the heights coming down to the ground.

I started this post last evening. I was couchbound, worn to the nub after a long day, a full week, too many late nights the prior weekend, and just a lot packed into too few days. I was recharging—reading and writing—while waiting for Warren, who has had an even fuller week, to come home. Earlier I had taken a walk, an act that is often recharges me, but last night it only wrung out the last dregs of energy within me. Sitting with a pen and an open notebook was perfect.

I have been turning this post over in my mind since last weekend. It has been coming to me in scraps: scraps of ideas, scraps of observations, scraps of memories. As I have tried to give more form to it, I realize I still have just a handful of scraps.

These are just scraps, but scraps can be useful things. Out of scraps you can make a simple meal or patch a rip in a pair of jeans. You can write a reminder note on a scrap of paper. Warren uses scraps in his workshop all the time, to shim a joint, to secure a wobble.

My scraps look like this:

  • Sitting through Rosh Hashanah services last weekend and remembering (I had forgotten) that the melody to the blessing upon opening the ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) was one I used to croon to Ben as an infant (substituting my own words) to get him to sleep.
  • Finishing the Penelope Niven biography of Carl Sandburg and crying at his death. Good god, the man died in 1967 and I knew that, but it still caught me in the pit of my stomach. 
  • Crying again Thursday morning at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, the sequel to our most recent book club choice. (This book was not one of our choices; I just had to read it.)
  • Hearing the Mansfield pops concert last Saturday, playing and singing various Broadway tunes, and the strong memory of the year Ben's high school performed Les Miserablés when the performers sang "One Day More."
  • A dust devil catching us as we drove the Mansfield that same day, this one spattering chopped straw against our car before it skipped on across the road. The whirling straw reminded me of (what else?) Oz.
  • Baum's Patchwork Girl was called Scraps. His granddaughter, Ozma (yes, they named her that) would duck her famous identity when growing up by asking her friends to call her Scraps. 
  • Seeing the fields take on their bare winter coats as farmers bring down their crops. 
  • Missing my sons and Alise and Ramona and looking up airfares and wondering where we (or at least I)  could shoehorn in a trip yet this year.
  • Missing my sons and Alise and Ramona and looking up airfares and wondering whether I would have enough energy for such a trip if I took it by myself.
  • A supper with our closest friends two weekends ago where we say out on our deck until late, the table and deck lit with candles that we carried out in bunches, eating Margo's good cheesecake and talking, none of wanting to break the spell of the flickering flames by moving inside or turning on harsh lights. 
  • The blanket flowers finally blooming, daring the nights to turn cold, lifting their yellow and red faces to the sun each day.
  • Banned Book Week last week and realizing the first banned book I ever read was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 
  • Reflecting that the blue umbrella I carried today was a long ago Mother's Day gift from Ben and Sam, and how I think of them whenever I pull it out.

Scraps.

As I walked downtown this morning, I looked up the street and saw a large gray door, snug between two telephone poles. It was on the tree lawn, and from a half block away it looked to be ten or twelve feet tall. At one level, I knew it wasn't really a door, but my eyes and imagination saw it as such. As I drew closer, the door resolved into a gray tree trunk, framed visually between the two poles several yards apart. No mysterious door after all.

But what a delicious thought for a minute or two. A gigantic door, appearing without notice on a path I have taken a thousand times, beckoning me to open it. Our current read in our Not Quite The End of Your Life Book Club is Was, a novel interwoven with the Oz of both the original Baum book and the 1939 MGM movie. I have written before about the magic of opening a door, starting with my very first post. I have written often about Oz, whether the movie or the book.

Oz and opening doors.

They are scraps I carry with me always.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Inch Thirty-One: New Year

Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, started at sunset last night. I sat through a Reform service livestreamed from a Cincinnati temple, Temple Sholom. It was the first New Year's service I have attended in over three decades. To my surprise, some of the prayers (I did not have a prayerbook, so I was lost at times) and many of the melodies came rushing back to me.

I once read a rabbi contrasting the American New Year and the Jewish New Year. We ring in the New Year in America (and, indeed, in many parts of the world) with partying, alcohol, and fireworks on New Year's Eve. On January 1, we come together to watch football games.

In contrast, the Jewish New Year begins with an evening of prayer and worship, and the first morning of the New Year is spent in more of the same.

Rosh Hashanah starts ten days of contemplation, atonement, and personal reflection that will not end until sunset on October 4 at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sometimes that period is called the Days of Awe. It is a time of looking backward over the last year and of looking forward to the year to come. One of the rabbis last night reminded us that there is a continue pull between two extremes: "I am but dust and ashes" and "the world was created entirely for me."

The rabbi spoke at length about the latter statement. It is s statement not about ego ("look how special I am!") but about celebrating the uniqueness of every individual. For those of us who give constantly to others, she reminded us that we need to value ourselves and to make sure we also nurture our own lives.

The rabbi then quoted from a poem by Marianne Williamson: "it is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us." It is our obligation, she said, to see the Divine in every moment. Let your living be sacred in a way that reminds you of the beauty of the world.

This morning I rejoined the congregation for the Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Terlinchamp reminded us that Rosh Hashanah is a chance for renewal, to be a better person. Presenting a passionate, powerful sermon about marriage equality, truth, and justice, she alluded to Yom Kippur and the part of the service where we rap our chests over our hearts. That should not be seen as our beating ourselves in penance, the rabbi said, but rather as knocking our hearts to open them up to the wrongs of the world that it is our duty to try to correct.

Rosh Hashanah and the days that follow are a period that requires the Jew to look inward, to atone not only for everything that has been done in anger, hurt, or malice, but also for everything that was not done and should have been done.

These are Days of Awe indeed.

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?

HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED SEEING THAT THE WIZARD OF OZ IS THE GREATEST POPULAR CULTURE PILGRIMAGE EVER?

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?

Facepalm.











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.

OTOH. OTOH.

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. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Inch Twenty-Three: Humming Along



They're back.

Of course, they're back. It is early August and the bug world is full upon us.

The fireflies came back first. They appeared in early June and have been dotting the evenings ever since. A couple of weekends back, we sat out late in Margo and Gerald's backyard, and I watched the fireflies rise in waves from the yard and from the cornfields that surround the yard.

It was July before I heard the first cicada, a lone one drumming in a treetop as I walked underneath. More have showed up since. The cicadas are quieter this year, but their chatter punctuates the days, especially the warm, sunny ones.

The katydids showed up a few nights after the cicadas started their daytime keening. I heard my first one in Columbus as we passed an old trolley park late in the evening. It took a few more days before I heard the same rasps at night in our own backyard.  Now I fall asleep to a full chorus. The sounds are not unlike a percussionist checking out güiros, ratchets, and other traps before setting up for a performance.

And the bees are back.

With the failing bee population, I hold my breath every summer. Will there be bees? Will they come back again?

If the rudbeckia bed is any indication, the local bee population is in good shape.

The bee are busy, so busy that I can bend over a laundry basket right next to some rudbeckia blooms without any confrontations. They are so thick that the rudbeckia bed hums faintly.

My parents come over for supper once a week and last Thursday we ate out on the deck. My dad was facing the rudbeckia bed and I noticed that during the meal his eyes kept lifting to the bees. Finally he spoke.

"There must be a bee tree nearby, or someone's keeping hives. I haven't seen so many bees in a long time."

Then dad was quiet, his eyes lifting again to the thick of the bees, watching them work the summer away.



Friday, August 1, 2014

Inch Twenty-Two: The Road to Santiago

I don't remember how old I was when I first heard of the Santiago pilgrimage. In my late 20s or early 30s, I want to say. Some colleague had mentioned it to my then husband, and he became obsessed for a long time with the thought of us flying to Spain and walking it. There were times I would come home from work, years after the initial talk of it, and he'd have spent parts of his day at home fantasizing about the trip and checking out air routes.

The camino de Santiago, one of the most familiar names for the pilgrimage, has been traveled by pilgrims for over 1200 years. There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela. The traditional end of the pilgrimage is the cathedral there, in which the bones of St. James are said to be interred.  One of the most famous routes is a 500 mile walk that starts at the border in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Known as the camino Francés, it is the route that many people think of when discussing the camino de Santiago. 

Even after I left that marriage, the camino never really left me. It got tucked away in some corner of my mind, resurfacing when I read Frances Temple's The Ramsay Scallop, a gem of a young adult novel about two teens on the pilgrimage in 1299.

Lately the camino de Santiago is very much on my mind. I've been spending a lot of time with my good friend Mark, who was recently relocated to Cancerland. We were talking about the terrible sense of dislocation that comes with that sudden forced move. Mark marveled at what he perceived to be my patina of sagacity and acceptance of life in Cancerland.

I remarked that I've lived in Cancerland for almost ten years compared to his four or five months. It's not wisdom so much as familiarity. I have been walking that path a long time now.

Somehow the talk (or rather, talks, as we have a running dialogue) snaked around to pilgrimages. Maybe we were talking about life being one long pilgrimage. Maybe we were talking about the endurance one has to have to walk a pilgrimage.

Mark casually mentioned a few locals who have walked the camino de Santiago. He thought the more recent walker (within the last decade) had characterized the walk as a nonstop party on foot. For my part, I came back with my favorite quote from The Ramsay Scallop: "Pilgrimage is painful...Painful and hard." I wouldn't want to walk the camino as a party, I said. "Well, then you probably should have walked it thirty years ago," said Mark.

Several days later, he sent me an email entitled "maybe rethink this." It contained a single link in it.

I let the email set two days before I opened the link, which turned out to be a website for a documentary about the pilgrimage, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago.  I watched the trailer:



I watched it again. I watched it one more time. Then I looked at the film's website to see if it would be playing anywhere near our home. It was late Friday afternoon; the film was playing in Columbus for that weekend and that weekend only. The very tiny window of opportunity was already closing.

I emailed Mark immediately. Could he and his wife join us at the movies? Then I went in search of Warren.

"I have to see this film," I said, dragging him to the computer to watch the trailer. "We are going to see this film on Sunday." Warren had no objections, but I think the intensity of my voice threw him a bit.

Mark and Mel's schedules didn't work out, so Warren and I went alone to the film.

Alone? Well, only in the sense of not sitting with anyone else we knew. The theatre, a small one, was probably three-quarters full. As we learned afterwards, some of the moviegoers had walked the camino. One of the film's co-producers, Annie O'Neil, who also appears in the film (the one crying about not wanting to stop), briefly introduced the film and said she would take questions afterwards.

Then the film began.

I cried. Okay, not sobbed, but tears were constantly pooling in my eyes and running down my cheeks. I cried in response to the emotions expressed in the film. I cried when the pilgrims the film follows finished their walks. I cried with the realization that walking the camino is something I am no longer physically capable of. I cried imagining Sam walking the camino in my stead. I cried again thinking of Warren and both my sons walking the camino together in my memory after my death.

Pilgrimage is hard.

I came out of the movie into the late afternoon, spent and a little soggy. As we drove home, Warren and I talked some, sharing our reactions to the film. My voice broke at times. I am drawn to the idea of a long walk where you take each day for what it is, walking to a destination, but always aware of the journey. I shared my sadness over realizing I will never walk the camino de Santiago.

Pilgrimage is painful.

Annie O'Neil shared a story with us after the film during the Q & A. She finished the camino, despite her fears that she wouldn't. When she flew home to Los Angeles, she was baffled to discover that her husband had taken up walking in her absence. "You don't walk," she told him. "Why now?" He told her that after her phone call, the one you see her make in the trailer, he began to walk in case he had to fly to Spain and find her on the camino. To take her home? No, to help her finish, carrying her in his arms if need be. (And yes, I cried when she told that story, as did she. I am crying again just typing it.)

Pilgrimage is beautiful.