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. 

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.