Category Archives: Om Mani Padme Hum

Lucky 13

Good morning dearest boy,

For the past twelve months, things have gone something like this:

Me: “Wow, you are going to be a teenager in X months,” or “Can you believe you will be a teenager on your next birthday?”

 

You: “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!” (Quickly covering face with hands, blankets, a beagle, book, or whatever else is handy.)

I think this is a completely appropriate response to the prospect of growing up. Larry and I do what we can to cushion the blow, perpetually making up songs with lyrics such as, “darkening arm hair means you’re a man” or “peculiar emotional responses mean you are becoming a man” or “mind-numbing standardized testing that’s created by politicians and used to judge teachers rather than assess your knowledge in any meaningful way makes you a man…”

So here we are, finally arriving at the doorstep of the dreaded baker’s dozen. It’s prime. It’s a Fibonacci number. It’s even an emrip, which I didn’t know was a thing, but is apparently a prime number that results in a different prime number when its decimal digits are reversed. It’s also a “happy number,” which I also didn’t know was a thing, but I think it’s best to take that one at face value. I consider it a lucky number. The first time I met Larry in person, we spent an entire Friday the 13th in Cincinnati, looking at contemporary art and century-old architecture. I’ve looked forward to every Friday the 13th ever since, because I associate it with hope and love and new beginnings, not Jason Vorheese or scary ree ree ree sound effects.

You took off into 12 running. Literally. You joined the cross country team and got up early on summer mornings to move your body for weeks before the school year started. This wasn’t easy for you at all, but you were so determined. You finished every race, no matter where you were compared with the pack. You showed so much heart. You showed us a form of endurance that lives well outside of winning. By the end of the season, another mom even told me that you inspired her to start running again. She wanted you to know this.

Right as you started your first year of a traditional middle school, I pulled you out for a couple of days so we could travel to see the solar eclipse in totality. We landed in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, at a Trail of Tears park where Cherokee chiefs were buried. With the apparent successor of Andrew Jackson sitting in the White House, it felt like the most tender place on the planet where we could stand and watch the cosmos show us who the boss really is. I took pictures of you surrounded by crescent shadows before you began narrating the scientific phenomena of every step of the event. The animals went quiet and everything grew dark. People all around us began bellowing. Just… yelling. So did I. Larry and I cried as though we’d seen through to the other side of the veil. Once again, I felt so lucky to be your mom. Helping you follow your passions has given me uthe gift of the universe so many times over. Would I have ever made that 6-hour trip if not for you? I doubt it. I learned that there are people who travel to the far reaches of the world for any chance to witness solar eclipse totality and oh my goodness, now I understand why. Thank you, my sweet boy. Thank you.

Your cousin Lily once said these words to me: “Seventh grade is a dark time.” I immediately felt that this was one of the truest things that I’d ever heard. The sharp bells and harshly lit hallways of your new school boiled all of my own junior high anxiety up to the surface. I remember the math teacher who thought public humiliation was a solid teaching strategy. I remember the day when I dressed up sharp and got a half-dozen compliments from teachers and others as I walked into the building, but when the girl at the locker next to mine said “you look like an A**Hole,” to my happy face, it bored into me for months. (Or years, I guess. Gee whiz.) My own projections and anxieties and expert catastrophizing might have been the hardest part of your adjustment, because, even when you’ve had disappointing or flailing moments, you don’t seem to carry them like I did. Or it might be that you are protecting me from them. I don’t know. I hope you tell me when you’re 30. One truth of middle school, just like the rest of life, might be that often everything is just fine until it isn’t.

We went to a party with Larry’s colleagues last fall and I heard someone ask you how you liked middle school. “I’m not a big fan of factory-model education,” you responded. Right on, man. And you know if I could take you to Finland or even to the Richard Feynman school in Maryland you know I would. (A school devoted to the sheer pleasure of learning – can you imagine that?) But the love happens to be where we live right now.

Flat-Earthers and climate change deniers really get under your skin. You want there to be a world with free fresh air and potable water when you grow up (as do I) and you understand the risky place we are in. I admire the way that you still connect with people whose worldviews differ from your own, like your bus driver, Bobby. When he came back from a hunting vacation, he told you that he never kills anything for sport – only for food. Living in a Buddhist house where we catch and release any bug or critter we find, you admired this about him. He makes you laugh. You like this man and you trust him. I’m glad he is there, helping you feel safe on that sometimes cold and bumpy bus ride.

You are taking Spanish and want to become fluent… to “be able to think in another language,” you told me. One of the owners of a local Mexican eatery recognizes you whenever we walk in. You smile at each other and she encourages you to engage in small talk, so patient with the fact that you are learning. And the food is good!

One day last August, you came home and excitedly described the way the eighth grade band students looked as though their instruments closely matched their personalities. You were excited for the instrument fitting, sure that it was going to reveal something about you, like Olivander’s Wand Shop in Harry Potter. I never would have predicted that the euphonium would be the one to pick you, but it did. You’ve loved it and nurtured it, playing it and the piano back to back. You began to teach yourself classical guitar as well after receiving the instrument from your Giga and Uncle Steve for Christmas.

In social studies, you were taken with Gandhi and the history of nonviolent protest. We were sitting together at the kitchen table one evening when you talked about the way that Gandhi forgave his assassin as he died. You were so moved by the thought of this that you could barely speak and tears filled your eyes. I wanted to squeeze you and your tender, open heart forever, my sweet Karma Sherab Palzang.

You have also watched endless YouTube videos of Shiba Inu howls edited to the tune of “Take On Me” by A-Ha, cracked up at dark, weird Spongebob Squarepants parodies and frequently yelled “somebody touch-a mah SPAGHET!” back and forth with Larry across the house (the meme comes from a 1939 cartoon). You also sing Yoda’s “Seagulls: Stop It Now,” from Bad Lip Reading together a lot. I’m ever amazed that so many songs that were huge when I was around your age (“Never Gonna Give You up,” “Careless Whisper,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”) have been burned into your consciousness by way of comic/ironic YouTube reinventions.

You remain an epic snuggler of humans and canines, especially Walter, your “soul beagle,” although Leelu seems to be your true protector when you aren’t feeling well. You are also an epic juggler – you taught yourself this spring. It reminded me so much of you when you were a baby – so determined to form a new skill that I’d catch you practicing it in your sleep. Then as now, once you formed the revelation that you could do something new in your mind, you’d do it, often in a matter of hours. You’d be sitting up, crawling or cruising as though you’d been doing it forever. So it has gone with juggling. You walk into other people’s homes and ask “hey – do you have anything that I can juggle?”

At church, you grew into belonging with another new group of friends. Together you looked at social justice issues as Harry Potter horcruxes that you could defeat. You made welcome baskets for people who had been homeless and just gotten into housing. You threw a big, magical dinner to raise funds for food insecure children. You are winding up the year with a book drive for prison libraries.

As I sit here looking at this long list of things you have done during your 13th revolution around the sun, I am struck by how little of it has been my idea. I ask you how much you want my help keeping you organized in this busy, busy life you have. And you would still do more if I could find the resources to help you. You miss knitting. You like riding your bike around the neighborhood. You were singing at the salad bar at a restaurant, prompting a man to walk up to me and implore me to get my daughter some voice lessons. You told me you were glad that I didn’t correct him about your gender, and that yes, you’d love to take voice lessons if you somehow could – if we had time and money.

You still dance, and I’m so glad. The Lyrical class that you take seems to make you feel good in way that is about nourishment, not the hungry ghost that “achievement” can become. Learning is still one of the most fun things to you. I sometimes wish our new town and your new school didn’t feel so competition-driven. Let’s blame Bobby Knight and resist the urge to succumb to unreasonable external expectations and self-flagellation whenever we can. I still think that you win when you grow, feel elation or awe, express yourself, or connect with others. There’s no way to keep score of them, but I believe that these intangibles really need a cheering section nowadays. Let’s make up some chants and dance routines for compassion and nonsequitur humor and fascinating or beautiful things that make us pull in our breath and exhale a wow.

IMother and sont’s not a wonder that 13 is daunting when there is so much more that you want to do and explore. You are already running into new pressures that require you to make increasingly harder choices about which thing you can do or learn. But we’ll all keep breathing, sweet boy, even me. We’ll try to hold space for knitting and ‘80s memes and singing and juggling and snuggling and dystopian teen fiction and Steven Universe and bike rides and our fundamental belief in the basic goodness of all beings.

I love being your mom, your friend and a witness to your life.

I love you infinity,

Mom

P.S. And if the homework brings you down, we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.  – David Bowie, “Kooks”

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Turn it up to 11: A note to my son on his birthday

IMG_2763Today, sweet boy, you are eleven years old – slipping securely into your second decade like an ace. It’s an interesting number that people who like woo things like to watch for on clocks, apparently because events linked to the time 11:11 appear more often than can be explained by chance or coincidence. In Basque, hamaika (“eleven”) has the double meaning of “infinite,” which is a concept being your mom has helped me understand infinitely better, (pretty much).

Eleven. The interval of an octave and a fourth. There are 11 players on a soccer team and 11 guns in a salute to brigadier generals. The eleventh hour is the last opportunity to get something done, and while it may be ill-advised, the truth is that plenty of ingenious and worthwhile things have actually been accomplished during that short span. Messier Object Number Eleven is also known as “The Wild Duck Cluster,” which sounds like something worth seeing. Sunspots last approximately 11 years, and I surely don’t need to tell you a thing about the Apollo 11 mission. It’s the fifth smallest prime number.  It’s also the atomic number of sodium, so maybe you’ll start acting a little bit salty this year, or at least stop face-palming when I let a swear word fly. Canadians seem to especially think 11 is an awesome number. The coin version of the Canadian dollar bill – the loonie – is an 11-sided hendecagon, the maple leaf on their flag has eleven points and clocks featured on Canadian paper money show the time as 11 o’clock.

You are still one of the most deeply learning-driven people I have ever met. This week, you set the Greek alphabet to the Roman alphabet song melody so that you could memorize it. Your purpose for doing this was apparently unknown, even to you, but memorize it you did. In the past year, you re-learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube at increasing speeds, then graduated to the 4 X 4 and 5 x 5. We also started running – you want us to do a 5K together this summer. You are so supportive when I run out of breath, offering me water and encouraging shoulder squeezes, you are so brave and good-humored when you struggle yourself.

During this orbit, you found a passion that rivals your inborn love for astronomy and physics – the piano. What started as a 30-day trial last June escalated into a near obsession by the time the school year arrived. I told you I would keep paying for lessons as long as I didn’t have to bug you to practice. Instead, I ended up feeling conflicted every time I had to urge you to remove your fingers from those keys so you could get some sleep or go to school. The Tetris theme was originally burned into my brain in college playing on a friend’s old Mac Classic computer. Now I hear it in my head, so many times, played by you.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the celestial and quantum have in any way vacated your soul. You were Carl Sagan for Halloween, reciting fragments of the Pale Blue Dot speech as you collected your candy. When we went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson give his splashy Power Point talk, you basically smiled your whole face off for nearly three hours.

We are approaching a time in your life when everything feels a little tougher for me to write about, think about and feel confident about seeing you through. As Buddhists (you still call yourself one too), we believe that every individual has his or her own unique path. There is no time in life that I can think of when this is more obvious than it is during adolescence. Pretty much anyone with a pulse feels a pang of heartbreak just thinking about this bardo period between childhood and adulthood, the ripening uncertainty of all things. Or, to put it more simply, like your cousin once told me, “I’m in puberty now, so that pretty much sucks.”

We’ve had our share of uncertainty and in-between-ness this year, too. Columbus Karma Thesgum Choling, our dharma home since you were a zygote, was burned to the ground by an arsonist in January. I remember rocking and nursing the tiniest you in the back of the shrine room. You circled the coffee table in the basement over and over and over again as a toddler while we listened to dharma talks through a speaker. You and I both took refuge on that dais, where we were also blessed by many teachers. This place, which helped us find peace through some very difficult times, met such a violent end. It’s still hard to process, to not feel attached to what it was and how it felt to be there, even though our faith teaches us non-attachment.

We are also looking at other changes in our lives. We are looking at transforming our family structure to include a person who truly loves us both. This is so many things – happy and scary, sad and wonderful, uncertain but promising. I love the way your heart is completely open to Larry, and the ways that you express it. I love that you’ll lay down for a nap with him and his dogs after a long museum afternoon and sometimes choose to hold his hand instead of mine when we’re walking. You have a lot of adults in your life who love you and help you feel safe and accepted as you are. I feel so grateful you have one more.

You visited Chicago for the first time last summer – Larry’s hometown – where the two of you helped each other through fears about the scary rise to the top of the Sears (Willis) Tower and you slid down the Picasso sculpture with other children late at night. You have frequently visited the elder care colony for the deaf  here, where his mother now lives. Your sweet willingness to learn and try to speak ASL brightened the days of residents enough that they gave you your own deaf name – a letter D that moves down the side of the face in a gentle wave, like your hair.

You are becoming a superbly graceful person – in some ways unlike anyone I’ve ever known. This past weekend, you were the recipient of a poop sandwich when a friend over-promised his birthday party invites, chose to have it at a corporate chain with a limited guest list capacity, and you became one of the sacrificial lambs. You put on a brave face and told him that you understood his decision, but you were wounded and sad enough to have to let me in on what happened the day you knew so many of your friends would be spending time together without you. I was upset for you, upset that it was maybe even your propensity for kindness and understanding that helped make you a candidate for exclusion. You didn’t tell me or any adult what was happening.

“Someone in the class had to get hurt,” you told me. “I wouldn’t wish this on someone else just so I could feel better.”

I tried to find fun things to do for the day to try and take the sting out of your heart. We went to see “The Wind Rises” by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Gibli on the big screen. It was wistful and a true-ish love story about a Japanese airplane designer and his tragically serendipitous relationship with his wife, who had Tuberculosis. You, thorough reader of every John Green novel there is, didn’t mind the subject. Afterwards, we went to a vintage arcade so you could experience video game life as I first knew it, before the age of responsive controls.

I kept joking about your mom not being as exciting as a pack of 11-year-old boys, but hoping we could have a good day. Truthfully, I may have felt more shaken up than you.

After filling up on a Pho dinner – your favorite – we came home and you put your arms around me as soon as we got out of the car.

“I’m still sad that I’m not with my friends today,” you told me. “But I’m not sad that I got to spend the day with you.”

IMG_1905Then later, as I kissed and hugged you goodnight, you grinned widely and said:

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up by taking me to the movie with the lung hemorrhaging and everything.”

Declan, raising you and watching you become this ever more interesting, complex and kind human being is the great joy of my life.  The other night we were talking and I mentioned how happy I am that Larry has become one of my very best friends, what a secure feeling that is.

“So he’s your best friend and your romantic partner,” you said, smiling. “That’s healthy.”

You paused for a moment, smiled a second smile and said “and then one of your other best friends in the world is your son.”

It’s true.

I love you infinity.
Happy birthday, sweet child,

Mom

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Run like you

994503_20135338Last night on the freeway I came upon an accident that I must have missed witnessing by less than a minute. The white SUV, flipped on its side on the side of the road, had twisted metal everywhere. Its lights were still on and I could see the silhouettes of two people, still hanging in their seats. I did not let my gaze rest there, having that sick, gut feeling that I was in the presence of lives, if not at that instant lost, permanently altered.

In those same few split seconds, I saw people running. There were five, six, seven, cars pulled over, hazards switched on, with people running, full throttle, toward the people in that SUV. From the furthest car came a uniformed police officer who must have just gotten off his shift. He was, in the parlance of eighth grade, totally booking.

“Wow,” I said out loud. Then, “oh yeah… om mani padme hung.” This is what my teacher says to do when you are not a medic, when you know that you would get in the way of people who know what they are doing, but you wish to help. (I am not a very good Buddhist scholar, but I understand this mantra as basically a wish or a prayer for love and compassion for all of the people involved.)

Moments later, at my exit, a man in a car next to me waved for me to roll my window down. For some reason, I thought he was going to tell me I had a spent taillight or maybe that he liked my bumper sticker, but instead he asked me “did you see that accident back there?”

When I told him I had, he recounted a particularly grisly detail that he had witnessed about one of the passengers, how difficult it would be for him to release that image from his mind.

“I feel so blessed, I’ve never been in a bad car accident,” he said. “Have you?”

I nodded that I had.

“Are you all okay now? Everything better?”

“Um, yeah,” I said, knowing that the answer was more complicated than yes or no. I wasn’t physically hurt. But I was driving someone I love, and he was.  Our lives continued, permanently altered.

“Be safe tonight, okay?” the man said. “You’re too purty to get hurt.”

I thanked him, kind of bemused that purty-ness would or should protect one from anything, but I appreciated his wish for my safety.

This morning I woke up from dreaming about those people running toward that SUV. They were conflated with the memory of hanging from my own seatbelt in my car, at 17, seeing people running toward me and my brother with everything they had in them, having others seem to appear out of nowhere. Having people leave messages on our answering machine that said “was that your car I saw on the news?”

There are people in the world who charge toward people who are hurt with everything they have in them. Sometimes it’s physical injury, sometimes it’s a more subtle one, like shame or fear.

They are such a miracle, you know?

I’m not enough like them. But I want to be.

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Are you okay?

“People help you, or you help them, and when we offer and receive help, we take in each other.
And then we are saved.”
– Anne Lamott

I sat alone in my car at a red light on a busy east side street a few weeks ago.

Feeling tired, I dropped my face into my hands and rested there for several seconds. When I looked back up, there was still a red light and a minivan next to me with a man with a blonde combover in the driver’s seat. He was aggressively waving his arms at me.

When he saw he had my attention, he mouthed the words “Are you okay?” with a point of his index finger and the universal OK sign, followed with a big mime-like raise of his eyebrows.

I think I looked at him dully for about a second before smiling a little and nodding in a way that was probably also more Marcel Marceau than natural human. I might have even given him a thumbs-up sign.  As he nodded back, smiled and pulled away, I felt strangely grateful for his concern. His out-of-nowhere, stoplight, blue minivan concern for some woman in an old Toyota resting her face in her hands.

The last three years have taught me more than I ever expected to know about the kindness of strangers — not to mention other people I might have been acquainted with, but had no way of knowing I could trust. At some point, when things were oppressively difficult in my life, I just started answering the question “how are you?” honestly all the time. I was not okay. I was hanging out with death and deadly illnesses and divorce and the effects of others’ addictions while trying my best to be a halfway decent mom.

But when I told people some piece of that information, I was amazed to find that I wasn’t exposed or embarrassed or humiliated. I was helped and encouraged. They held up a mirror and let me know that I didn’t appear to be as wounded as I felt. They told me I was a good mother or a good person. They rose to meet my honesty with their own. Sometimes they told me things that were braver than I ever imagined, making my own truths less scary and alien. I was saved. Over and over, I was given faith and hope in the primordial goodness of people.

As I made my way home from the minivan man, I drove past the Grill and Skillet – the dictionary definition of a greasy spoon. And I remembered another time in the spring of 2010, when someone asked me if I was okay on a day when I definitely was not.

“Let me take you for a coffee,” she said.

She was a woman of few means, but she was wealthy and generous with wisdom, and she liked to make a big production of treating people to the delights she could afford. She bought me that coffee and some toast at the Grill & Skillet, while she munched on four pieces of bacon.

“I’m skipping all the ordinary calories and just going straight for the devil today,” she told me. Then, eyeballing my jailhouse snack, “You’re a cheap date. Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

All I genuinely wanted was some of peacefulness she seemed to possess, her natural ability to be true to herself. I don’t remember what her exact words were to me that day, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably something like “you need to think about acceptance, baby, about accepting things as they are. It will free you.”

Every time I spent a few moments with her, I could feel a deep turning in my life, away from self-created obstacles and emotional storms.

And I remember watching her, usually moving slowly because of a tumor in her leg, dragging a heavy, quilted bag of self-help and meditation books and paper worksheets on things like identifying emotions that she felt would be useful to others. If you were in need, she would probably make you wait a little while. She might have to take care of something for herself first, like getting a drink of water or a snack – often something that seemed quite trivial compared to the desperately catastrophic things you were feeling. But then she would turn towards you, become present with you, and you were enveloped in the safety of her wisdom, usually ending with a hug that was equally, spectacularly enveloping. There was no telling whether you would be lifted for moments or days – that would depend on you – but you would be lifted.

Best of all, you would witness the grace she received for herself by helping you. As she sensed you lightening, she would lean back and smile. “I have an affinity for people like you,” she would say. “We have experienced the same kinds of pain, so know that I mean it when I tell you that I love you and I love to be of service to you.”

You were not a burden. Your willingness to share and trust actually gave her something too. Not only had you unburdened yourself to someone safe, you had been useful to that person.

After the Newtown killings and the apocalypse that wasn’t, Facebook, my email, phone calls and friends on the street have made me feel like we’re becoming a nation of blue minivan combover men and toast-buying women. “Are you okay?” we ask each other in the wake of fallen children, heroic educators and jokes about the world’s demise. Because no matter how much news fasting, meditation or other exercise in equanimity that you practice, there’s little or no getting around feeling a tragedy like this one, feeling the insanity of any human being treating the world like there is no tomorrow.

I keep returning to the notion that we are never as helpless as we think. Two weekends ago, I heard a wise teacher say “Love and compassion are never in vain. They are never useless. They are never powerless.”

And that’s the lesson from my friend that has remained with me most powerfully, a year and a half after her passing. (The lesson that the minivan man and a drive down Main Street brought back to my attention.) She showed me that when you take good, consistent care of yourself, helping or caring for others is not only not a burden, it’s a blessing.  You take that sip of water first. You say “I’ll call you back after I take a nap.” You eat a sandwich. You swim or meditate or pray or spend time petting your dog. You do what it takes to make sure your center is as strong and balanced as it can be today.

Then you walk toward that next person you see hurting, preferably without any expectation that they are even ready or willing to accept anything you have to offer.

“What can I do to help you?” you ask.

If the answer is “nothing,” you accept that.

If the answer is something you consider, then realize that you can’t give them, you tell them that directly.

But there is often something you can do. Sometimes just the question “what  can I do to help you?” is a greater gift than you might imagine. It may be days, weeks or years before you realize that you actually helped someone. You may never know you helped them.

You do it anyway. And you are saved.

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It’s such a good feeling

My son and I have been watching old episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood lately. It’s much easier than I realized to get engrossed in the land of make-believe and film footage of the crayon factory as an adult. But it’s even easier to rest in Fred’s compassion.

“He seems like a question answerer, conscious child idea conceiver Carl Sagan,” said Declan, looking for (and finding) the right words.

The man understood how hard it can be to be a person, especially a child. That’s been tough work for us lately, so I’m glad to be parenting in a digital age that can take us back in time.

Whether he was singing about liking people for true reasons, or his daily celebration of the fact that we’re alive and growing inside, he had this way of creating safety and space. Even though he has passed, I’m amazed to see that the shows still hold that power for my son.

In one episode, someone in the land of make-believe had invented a machine that could see into people, see something true about them, like the warmth of their heart or their love of chair-making.

When it was over, and the camera began panning above Mr. Roger’s colorful neighborhood houses and toy cars, Declan snuggled his face into my neck and pretended to look into me.

“There is lots and lots and lots of love,” he said. “And lots and lots of art, writing especially. Buddhism. The ocean. Me.”

He stopped, leaned back, and smiled at that thought for a moment. Then he snuggled back in and continued.

“All the art you’ve ever seen in museums. All the music you’ve ever listened to. Not just me but everybody you’ve ever known or loved. All the trees and flowers you’ve ever seen or smelled. All the places you’ve lived. Dogs and dolphins and other animals you loved. Blue sky. Clouds. Rain. Storms. Hurricanes. Your reflections.”

“My reflections?”

“Yes – both kinds. The ones you’ve actually seen and.. your thoughts.”

And that one. That one from my son, inspired by Fred Rogers. That’s a reflection I want to keep forever.

 

More Fred, because even if you think you outgrew him, you didn’t:

His touching 1969 Senate hearing testimony in defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes his reading of “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

You can watch or listen to most of his songs on the PBS web site.

Fred’s goodbye on his final program, which is especially sweet for parents who grew up watching him.

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Tract for the Day of the Dead

One of my first official acts as a newly minted 40-year-old was to help my mother pronounce my stepfather dead after a prolonged and terrible brain illness.

It was dawn on the morning after my birthday and it was harder to be sure of this than you might imagine. He left this realm the way a flashlight dims – flickering into a barely perceptible glow before extinguishing completely. We called hospice. A nurse came to confirm our suspicions and called the funeral home. I watched my five-year-old son touch his grandfather’s cool face and arms before he asked me “how do you know for sure?” The undertaker arrived. I remember moving a clay bust my mom made of my stepfather’s face out of the foyer, because I had a sudden and vivid fear that the gurney carrying his body would snag the pillar it was on and smash it to bits. They took the body and left an artificial rose on his bed.

And then I helped my mother organize his funeral.  He was a spiritual man, but not at all religious. There was no minister to call for assistance. We arranged to use the chapel in the funeral home. My stepbrothers and brother and I each committed to deliver a eulogy – four in words, one in classical music. But we felt we needed to wrap the service and burial in some kind of formality, so my mother and my future ex-husband and I dug our way through books and books of one thing we knew my stepfather had faith in – poetry.

We ended up selecting pieces by Wallace Stevens and George Santayana.  But my mother had heard the most from my stepfather about his admiration for Imagist poet and New Jersey physician William Carlos Williams (also mentor to Allen Ginsberg).  We pushed through volume after volume, looking for something of his that one of us could read. The first poem we found related to death or loss began:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

So that hardly seemed appropriate.  Actually, we laughed at its total inappropriateness. Fresh grief can be like that – manic and grimly hysterical. Then there was another poem. It felt too raw at the time, so we didn’t read it either. Williams was left out of the funeral. But that other poem is still with me.

Last week, I completed training to be hospice volunteer for the organization that took such extraordinary care of all of us before and after my stepfather passed. We have had (I have had) several other losses since then, and none of those experiences have felt alike.  The training made me think more deeply about all of the pressure valves people blow open and seal shut in dark times or mourning, the crazy emotional acrobatics and contortions that can lead to accepting — or never accepting — a loss.  For some people, cracking a single emotion may take remarkable courage. Others (like me) may expectorate feelings with more persistence than we are usually able to muster to wipe down the kitchen counters.

I like Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins “I measure every grief…” because of her stark consideration of several ways that grief may manifest and her conclusion that its very existence is something that unites us all. Death, loss and everyone’s inevitable experience of them at some time bind us like quantum physics, the interconnectedness of Buddhist philosophy or Walt Whitman’s beautiful line from Leaves of Grass – “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

When someone dies after a long illness, particularly one that seems to strip away the person that you knew in pinpricks and bold strokes, it can take time to recover; time to begin to remember them well.  My stepfather was an intellectual, an elitist, even, but a brilliant and loyal man. He inherited me as his very first daughter-like person when I was 19 and while I know I flummoxed him at first, we grew into a relationship that ended with the intimacy of hallucinations and dying.

And I have him to thank for the fact that I’ve read a lot more William Carlos Williams in the last two years than ever before.

I’ve always loved the rituals around Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day, because they give memories a chance to breathe within us. We can make offerings to the people we’ve lost, remember the parts of ourselves that they gave us.

I think my stepfather would have liked it if this poem had been read at his funeral. It would have been bold. But I think, rightly, that it might have been too raw for those who were grieving for him. So I make it as an offering to him, and anyone who needs permission to feel anything at all they need to feel, today:

Tract
By William Carlos Williams

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ’s sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that’s no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I’d not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker’s understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
Go now
I think you are ready.

****

I remember you, Stephen.

Love,
Tracy

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Saturday night dragonfly

A dragonfly hovered strangely at eye-level outside my car window in August. I thought it must mean that my friend Joan was dead.

I was stopped at a red light. The dragonfly seemed to hang there for tens of seconds, inches from my face. Then it circled the car twice, whirling a Monarch butterfly in its tailwind over the hood as it swooped away and headed toward the river.

My son was with his father overnight — a new freedom that, for me, felt more like purposelessness. I had a bag of takeout food and no one to eat it with, no little boy to trade grins with and listen to, no one to wrap my arms around.  I looked north, where Joan lay unconscious at a hospice facility. I knew that her daughter was at her side, and that she wanted them to remain undisturbed.

I turned the car in that direction anyway, remembering the spacious rooms where my stepfather had stayed for a few days a little over one year before, the doors that opened to a courtyard so they could wheel the dying outside to soothe them with fresh air. I remembered the kindnesses of the nurses, the aide, the social worker and the spiritual counselor who came to our home; the suspended state that we lived in for two and half months as we watched him die.

It took a couple of weeks for him to let go of living, like watching an old flashlight dimming with episodic flickers of panicky light. We lived as though we were deep underwater, even after the day I saw the final dullness of his eyes, the slack of his jaw and heard myself say, after pressing my hand over his rough rib cage and in search of the faint heart beat that had been there an hour earlier, “I think he really is dead now, mom.”

Joan was the person who regularly pulled me to the surface during that time. She had warmth, a wisdom that sprang from her own intimate relationship with grief and a genuine faith. She gave these enveloping hugs and called everybody she loved familial names like baby, sweetheart, son and daughter. She had a way of saying exactly what I needed to hear, a way of helping me see that I could let go of the things I couldn’t control and sleep through the night after all.

As she moved toward her final stages, I had been out of town. She had already been in that unconscious, transitional state between life and death for days when I returned. I dropped off a letter for her and a note to her daughter the day before. “You are infinite,” I had said. Her generosity multiplied through her dozens of spiritual babies, sweethearts, sons and daughters in a way that gave her a kind of immortality. We who were loved by her reflected what she gave us with richness and brilliance, so it seemed perfectly normal to think that a dragonfly could be Joan.

I slowed down momentarily to look at the stately, house-like hospice structure as I drove past. “Was that you?” I said out loud. “Was it you, Joan?”

I didn’t stop. I headed to a park with a pond that was always bursting with dragonflies. I slathered on bug spray, then watched them skim the water, some stick-thin, some chunkier like elongated bumblebees, all iridescent, all reflecting light.

I was too apprehensive to eat anything but a few bites of watermelon. A little girl, maybe two or three years old, sidled up to me and tried to take my car keys. I can’t remember her face at all, but I do remember thinking that she was beautiful.  She touched the wooden mala beads that I had been praying with as she said hello, then went for the keys again. I tried to hide them. Her grandfather distracted her by suggesting they walk over to look at the ducks. They were actually geese, but it worked. My keys were safe.

I thumbed through om mani padme hum on my mala a third time, sending it to Joan as the sun set. Then I took myself to a coffee shop, where I sat and wrote with a pen in my hand and wished I could unknot the waiting feeling in my stomach. I watched all kinds of people on the street outside as they headed places, looking purposeful. I imagined having that kind of anticipation again – the kind you feel when you are on your way somewhere, looking forward, open to all of the possibilities.

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Impermanent impermanence

So I took the better part of a year to complete the 12 Steps (for codependents).

I thought finishing them would crack my life wide open.

There were days when it did. My hope was enormous. My good feelings became at least as intense and vivid as my bad ones, and they rushed right in.  I felt like everything was about to start fresh – new work, a new single mom’s life, a windfall of new sources of inspiration.

But my life didn’t exactly crack wide open.

The friend that walked me through the 12 steps died. I felt myself stall.  I grieved for her.  I grieved for the person I thought I was supposed to be at 41 (again). I waited for the school year to start. I fretted when it did, inflating myself into human lifeboat for my son’s first grade transition. Meanwhile, several other people I care about have continued to deal with real things, like life-threatening illnesses and debilitating depression. I felt like I had no business worrying about the state of my ordinary things while extraordinarily bad things happened to others.  Other times I felt like my ordinary things are all I should be worrying about, because I’m right here and for now, I am breathing. If the last year or two have taught me nothing else, it’s that being here and breathing are nothing to take for granted.

I joked a lot with people over the last year that I had “a high-maintenance emotional hygiene regimen.” I read my meditation books. I went to my step study. I went to Al-Anon meetings. I started meditating more. I even built myself a better, healthier body.  I’m strong enough to hug you hard and punch you even harder.  (Cue Lifetime Channel for Women movie montage video with inspirational music.)  Give me the chance and I will. (Hug you, I mean. I’m not all that punchy.)

I thought I would write about shifts and struggles and steps and changes here more often, but I’ve been processing a lot of it out in the world, where I’ve grown much better at touching people, looking them in the eye when I tell them that I love them or what they mean to me.  A few of those relationships are a direct or indirect result of this place, or have been deepened by things I’ve shared here, so I’m grateful to it.

A friend asked me if all this work has actually made me happier a few weeks ago. The answer didn’t come to me until a day or two later.

“I used to think happiness was something I might be able to figure out how to sustain, but I realize that’s not possible” I told him. “Now, when I’m unhappy, I can see that I have so many more routes back to happiness than I used to. It’s not as scary to be unhappy anymore.”

My life has cracked wide open. It’s just not what I expected, thank goodness.

 

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Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

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Dharma spelling

My son patiently snuggled on my lap during a Sunday morning dharma teaching about living in samsara. As I took in my wise teacher’s thoughts about nurturing compassion in the face of bad drivers, mean governors and crappy news, he pulled out a pad of paper and some crayons.

Oh, imperfection. Impermanence. How beautiful it can be. I think this is the best phonetic spelling ever.

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