Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A travelogue of remembrance

I so don’t feel like working today. I’m tired--- not that soul-crushing, bone-weary brand of tired, just the garden variety not-enough-sleep kind of tired. I'm not sleeping well these days.  Used to be, I could at least fall asleep.  Staying asleep might perhaps be more problematic, but really--- is there a difference between getting up at 4:00 as opposed to 5:00?.  So I turned off the alarm before it rang more often than not.  I mostly remember to reset it.  And if I didn't?  Not such an issue.

Now, though, falling asleep is proving to be a challenge.  I am distracted.  Energetic.  Unable to settle.  Unable to be still and get quiet.  Bright shiny things grab my attention, and hold it for a minute or six, until the next bright shiny thing crosses my path, and I am off again.  

And lately, my distractions take me down dark and musty hallways of remembrance.  They are cobwebbed and dusty, with tilted floors and cracks in the walls.  There are echoes.  Mostly, there is silence.  I am free to wander, opening doors at random, disturbing the dust of centuries.  Spare or cluttered, the rooms of memory are a mess of  jumble.  Sometimes I poke around, looking at odd artifacts that resonate with some altered, old part of me.  More often than not, I feel as if I am a polite stranger, rooting through the museum of someone else's life story.

Still, there is hidden treasure.  Faded scenes, washed in the sepia tones of time, take on a sudden flash of color and capture my attention, quicken my breath. A wisp of blue sky, or leaves the color of heartbreak gold, and I am transported to that Summer Country of laughter and ease and grace.  A moment in time, frozen into forever and suddenly alive again.  Not always grace, of course, or ease.  Sometimes the memory leaves me breathless and gasping--- from fear, from sadness, from anger or joy.  But always something deeper, more resonant.

So, perhaps i am honoring that Summer Country, perhaps exorcising the demons of my distractions--- or maybe nothing so prosaic or dramatic: perhaps just a remembrance writ slowly and gently, to honor a part of me that has been locked too long in the dust and dark of my memory.  So: a scene from a life gone by:

New Orleans.  When I lived there, in the late 80s, I was working for ACORN.  It was long before ACORN was a dirty word or a player in presidential elections.  At the time, it was a national poor people’s organization.  It was my home, my heart, my passion.  Their headquarters were in NOLA, though there were offices dotted about the country back then.  We would gather there for national and divisional meetings.  Actually, I think we would gather there to drink.  We were all quite proficient at that.  We were also proficient at polemic and self-righteousness, filled with the fire of the godly, ready to change the world, empower the poor, stop capitalism in its ugly tracks.  Just make sure that we could do it in the afternoons and evenings, after we’d had a few hours to sleep and sober up.

New Orleans was Mecca, for all I was concerned.  Good lord, the first time I was there, I learned you could drive with open liquor in the car.  At least, that’s what I was told, and I was good with that.  One of my favorite memories of the Crescent City:  standing with a group of friends (read: fellow drunken activists) at the edge of a pier around midnight, in the swamps of Jean LaFitte State Park (park; swamp--- same thing, right?), sweat pooling in every nook and cranny of my body because the humidity was still about 109%, even at midnight, drink in hand, mostly empty, since I’d been holding it for all of a minute or six), teasing the slow-moving logs that may or may not have been alligators.  I remember the quiet, the light that seemed to be phosphorescent, or maybe it was just that the moon was huge and the waters reflective and I was a bit drunk.  And I was a part of that moment--- a bit dizzy, yes, and maybe that's why I felt at ease in my own skin, willing to let the night be, willing to stay silent and part of.

New Orleans.  Oh, what joy: to roam the streets at all hours of the day and night (literally), in search of the next drink.  And, thank God, I had no trouble finding it.  It was a sweet set up, really.  A job designed for an addict:  small group of like-minded people, all a bit codependent, a bit needy, a bit on the edge and secretly convinced of our own unworthiness, all self-righteous and cynical with a candy-coating of altruism, fighting the good fight.  But fighting it during the convenient hours of 2:00-10:00.  That meant we could work hard, drink hard, sleep hard, screw hard (not necessarily in that order), and then start all over again.  Every day.  And hey, we were saving the world, dammit so don’t lecture me about my personal shortcomings!

And then ACORN transferred me there.  Admittedly, it was only for about two months, but I had an address there.  It appeared to be more than many residents of NOLA had--- an address, I mean.  God, I hated the poverty, the dirt, the racism.  It was so different from the North.  There, at least, we maintain the dignity of hiding our poor.  They’re not sitting there, out in the open, for God and everyone else to see.  Ok, so we have a little thing called winter here, but still…  I preferred my social conscience to be of the intellectual variety, thank you very much.  You know, if you keep to Midtown and the Garden District, New Orleans isn’t all bad.  There is a certain amount of grace and dignity hidden among the swampy moss or whatever that stuff is that hangs from trees.  Kudzu.  That’s it.  The antebellum houses are beautiful.

I didn’t live in these districts.  I lived in Fouberg-Marigny, a small area just outside of the Quarter.  It was crowded with shotgun houses, apartments with these useless (though decorative) balconies, hurricane shutters and narrow, twisty streets.  It was noisy and rank with the smells of the river and the Quarter--- stale beer, rotten fish, sex.  There was a restaurant kitty corner to my apartment there I used to go to get the best smothered chicken in the world.  It was August in New Orleans, but my roommate refused to run the air conditioner, as a cost saving measure.  I would wake up in the morning with a fine sheen of sweat (oops, sorry: a glow, since women don’t sweat), and never quite feel dry.  Ever.  For months.  I would put my hair up in a French braid, still wet, in the morning.  At 11:00 pm, my hair would still be damp.  I seriously thought my hair was in danger of mildewing.

My experiences while I was there?  I had to tell my best friend and field manager that she could either go to rehab or find a new job, since her alcoholism was really becoming a problem.  That was a fun conversation.  And no, I saw no irony in it at the time.  It was hot and humid and dirty. I learned to eat oysters and po’ boys.  I wandered the quarter on Sundays and had coffee and beignets at CafĂ© du Monde every morning.  I had Bananas Foster at Brennans.  I ate at Court of the Two Sisters, had blackened redfish at Paul Proudhomme’s restaurant, rode on the trolley car, watched alligators in a swamp, ate real turtle soup.  I had adventures.  I survived them.

Here’s my best picture of New Orleans:
New Year’s Eve.  I wasn’t living there anymore, having been transferred back to Chicago (with stops in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Santa Cruz in between).  I was really done with the whole political activist do-gooder thing.  I was tired.  I was tired of moving. Tired of the philosophy that demanded that if you organize the poor, you should be poor.  But we were in New Orleans over New Years, for our big year-end national meeting.  I had just ordered my friend and colleague into rehab.  We were all set to watch fireworks at the river when a fog came up.  It was thick, much like the air of the city on a good night.  You could barely see 10 feet in front of you.  But we headed for the river anyway.  I don’t know why.  The night sky was only a reflection of sodium orange and grey.  You could hear the soft lapping of the water hitting the bank of the river.  There was some wretched eighties music playing.  I’m sure that big hair and leg warmers abounded (except on my little group, where black was really the only color to be tolerated).  And New Orleans, stubborn as ever, started the fireworks show.  In the fog.  With zero visibility.

Suddenly, the grey fog was backlit in jeweled splendor.  Blue and green, orange and red--- they swirled and coiled in on themselves.  No sparks, no fire flame, but muted flashes of light.  It was stunning.  It still takes my breath away.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

The sink is broken.

I say that as if it were 100% factual, as if I knew something about sinks and their state of repair.  Or disrepair.  Whatever.  I'm guessing that it's broken because I don't think it's normal for water to gurgle and seep, with infinite slowness, as if reluctant to slip down the drain.  I can see it winking at me, this pool of standing water (and just how the hell can water stand?) just inside the drain.  I can tell that it's laughing.

I'm also thinking it's not entirely normal for water (and various other solids) to geyser up from the second sink when I turn on the disposal.  No; I'm pretty sure that water in sinks is designed to go down rather than up.  Or out.  Or stand, or gush or ooze malevolently.

So--- the sink is broken.

I think I could take the whole sink situation if it weren't for the dishwasher issue.  It is less a dishwasher and more a dishrinser at this point.  Sad to think that I have to wash the dishes before the dishes get washed.

And don't get me started on the electrical conspiracy running rampant through the walls.  I have, like, elevnty seven outlets dotting the walls.  I was so relieved when we moved here that I wouldn't have to play the exciting game of Socket Overload, considering the building is older than dirt.  That feeling lasted right up until the time I had to actually plug something in to said outlets.  Some work.  Sometimes.  Of the two plugs per outlet, one works.  Sometimes.  And then, in holiday spirit, they both work.  Sometimes, the two plugs do a weird mindmeld kinda thing, so that the plug that has worked forever is now dead and past redemption. Yet its twin, who has been, apparently, for show only, now lights up the room effortlessly.  Sometimes the wall switch works with one plug in an outlet.  Then both plugs, and then every outlet in the room.  And then back again.

It's like those light boxes that moved and grooved to a song, creating patterns based upon the rhythm and flow of the music.  The intermittent electricity in my house is as amusing as those boxes were.  Good thing I had the walls painted before moving in.  I have visions of crumbling plaster and long snaky, snarky wires in a rainbow of color decorating every room in the house.

What else?  Given time (and let's face it: I seem to have that in spades these days), I could find a thousand  grievances and glitches, all those minor annoyances that set teeth on edge and blood to simmer and make me twitch a bit.  I can forget to breathe, because it's always just one more thing.  One more thing in an endless procession of things that tumble end over end and gather all together, piling in a tangled jumble of One-More-Thingness, an insurmountable, overwhelming mass of Mess.

The house.
The bills.
The car.
My job.
The bills.
The money.
The lack thereof
The holidays.
Not dating
Did I mention bills?

The list is endless.  Eternal.  There is always one more thing that needs attention.  Every petty thing on the list fights for supremacy--- notice me!  fix me!  I am drowning in this clamoring sea of minor demons.

I know, I know--- it's not as if this were an apocalypse of woe.  It's a garden variety list.  It is the stuff of life.  No klaxon-call, no cacophony of noise, just the constant murmur, like the tide: a steady in and out, back and forth motion without rest or pause.  I tell myself I cannot breathe. I don't know where to start, which to start.  In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna: "It's always something!"

And just when it threatens to consume me, this List of all Lists, just when I think I have reached the edge and feel the vertigo pull before toppling into the chasm of tedium and pettiness, a whisper: "You have some high class problems there."

It stops me cold.

I want to argue with that voice (and I suspect it is my own, an echo of some wisdom heard in the hallowed halls of AA.  Dammit).  I want to rail against the sentiment, and wallow in the pure drama of my litany.  It's bad!  Yes it is!  My life is hard!  I have issues!  I have problems!

What I have is a roof over my head.  Heat in the winter and cooled air in summer.
What I have is food on the table and a car about which I can complain.
I have people in my life who give me the courage to soar.
I have a God in whose I hand I can rest when I let myself.

My mother's favorite saying comes back to me: I used to cry because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.

I have blessings beyond measure.  Family.  Love.  Life.  Yeah, it's been a tough year or three.  I have mourned much, lost much.  Most of the loss has been stuff.  Some of the loss more profound.  I miss my brother more than I can say.

But I am surrounded by light, when I remember.  I can live my life as a prayer, when I remember.  I can share the blessings I have been given, when I remember.

And so, as Thanksgiving approaches, I remember that I am grateful for all the gifts that are part of my life.  The good and the bad stuff.  The people, the problems, the glitches and the glittery, dancing hidden blessings that flit like butterflies.  All the delight, all the amazement and awe: it is there for the asking.  Even without asking, those blessings are there, waiting for me to catch up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A poem for Shabbat

And so we stand
On the edge of this week

Pebbles strewn at our feet
The distance between us an endless heartbeat
The difference like night
Like day
Like light and darkness

Like God
Who separates the days
And brings us
Ever and always
To this holy edge

To this Shabbat

Where we stand
Trembling with effort
Weary from a week filled with
Noise and action and movement
Restless and driven
From one moment to the next
Until we are brought to this edge

This endless and always edge
To this Shabbat
Sacred and at peace
We pause
We breathe
At rest

With God
With one another
In a flickerflame of candle light
The setting of the sun
From one breath to the next
One heartbeat
We stand on the edge and cross into the infinite
As one
Into peace
Into Shabbat

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Joys of Mommyhood (an Act-as-If tale)

There are times I want to sell my child to the highest bidder.

At the ripe old age of eleven years and some change, my son can be at once loving and kind and funny and a demon spawn from hell whose only mission, apparently, is to drive me a little more crazy than I already am.  Yay.  He does it with practiced ease, and flows effortlessly between all these amazing attributes like water through a sluice.

He's been on lock down this week.  No games.  No electronics.  No television.  He's been such a happy boy.  Ha!  No one can pout quite like an eleven year old.  No one can shoot daggers quite so accurately, or look so innocently aggrieved when called on the dagger-shooting.  No one can take up so much negative space, or tap quite so insistently.  He literally sits on the couch, clicking a button on some unplugged electronic doohickey, again and again and again, until I want to poke spikes through my forehead.  Or his.  And just when I am ready to burst from the the clickclickclick of that button, he switches tactics, bouncing his heavy foot on the floor.  Stomp.  Rest.  Stomp.  Rest.  Stomp.  Rest.

After a minute of stomping and malevolent staring, I turn to him.  "We have neighbors downstairs.  Do you think they want to hear you stomp?"  Silence. For thirty-seven seconds.  Then


Even he gets annoyed with the button pushing.  At least, that specific button pushing.  My internal buttons are, however, fair game for this side of eternity.  Finally: I'm bored, he says.  Clean your room.  Pack your suitcase for your dad's.  Read a book.  Draw something.  Practice piano.  Something.  Anything.  It's not as if I've tied him to the bedpost.  Yet.  He practices piano.  At me.  He folds the book at me, noisily, angrily.  I love passive-aggressive behavior. I wonder where he gets it from.  Mm hmm.

It takes everything I have not to cave.  Good lord, what happened to me?

I swore, when I was pregnant with him, that I would be That Mom.  You know the one: The Earth Mother.  Consistent, loving, firm, reasonable, reasoning.  The one with the perfect child.  You know, that mythical mother found only in the pages of What To Expect, or some other parenting book, written by Type A personalities thrust suddenly from the Board Room into the Changing Room, who has endless patience, endless resolve, an attentive and participating partner and a bottomless wallet.  The mom you learned to hate, if only because she was so competent in the face of your eternal struggle.

The television would never be the babysitter.  My child would never need to be bribed, coddled or cajoled into good behavior.  This small miracle, when presented with a logical, well-structured and reasonable argument, would immediately see the error of his ways, apologize and cease all tantrum activity forthwith.  We would read together, sing together, play together.  Do crafts and art projects.  Have good, quality alone time. Take walks.  Learn.  Be really, really cool--- the darlings of the block.  Other parents would live in awe of my parenting success; really, be slightly envious of my calm and loving skills, my ability to remain unruffled in the midst of chaos.

Of course, no one told me that I would be living like a nomadic Bedouin for several years.  Invariably, I was the mom who forgot to pack something--- extra clothes; a spare diaper; toys; food; the building blocks of a happy baby life.  No one told me that my child's whine was perfectly pitched to disrupt every nerve ending in my brain, until I wanted to sell him or strangle hime, whichever came first, just to get him to stop.  (Or that I would be the only one able to hear this particular resonant pitch).  I learned all on my own that cookies-- more so than music-- had charms to soothe the savage beast, television was the opiate of the masses (and though I only have the one child, at times, he has the energy and volume levels to count as a mass).  Don't even get me started on the restorative power of French fries...

I learned, after listening to him screech and wail and cry as if being chased by every demon from hell and beyond, that if I just gave in, there would be...peace.  Silence.  Blessed and holy quiet, the demons vanquished, sent back to the nether hells from whence they had come.  Silence from the depths of the cave into which I have taken refuge.  Far from being Earth Mother, I became her opposite, sacrificing discipline and consistency  for a few minute's quiet.

And I hate the feeling that I'm such a bad mommy, that everyone else is doing it so much better.  They're organized and disciplined.  I look at my son and start singing "One boy! Boy for sale! He's going cheap--- only 20 pennies..." from Oliver! I am mostly joking when I do it.  And of course Nate, being my son, has learned to sing back at me "One mom! Mom for sale..."

He has learned every lesson that I desperately tried to avoid.  Trust me: sarcasm, never attractive in an adult, is really unattractive when streaming from the mouth of a five year old (and six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven year old as well. I'm sure it will be just as unattractive in a 12 year old).  Perspective is a challenge.  We each of us are Awful-izers,  If now is bad, it will get worse and we will set up camp in that forever.  We don't have bad days, we have the foreshadowing of abject misery throughout all eternity.  Conflict resolution?  Peaceful discussion between the parties? Sure, we get there eventually, but really, slammed doors and shouting and tears are so much more dramatic to begin.  And so effective.  Sigh.

The list is as infinite as my shortcomings.  Large, small, petty, self-righteous, self-justified: each and every one plays out in my son's life for all to see.  Are defects of character genetic?

And then, just when I'm about to give up all hope, throw in the towel, call Nanny911, this:

Last night, Nate hands me a slip of paper entitled "The Eight Nights of Chanukah"  He has re-written "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  The printing was small and crabbed and smudged pencil.  Rhyme, meter and scansion were absolutely non-existent.  Spelling was merely an approximation, and even then, I was hard-pressed to figure out what he was writing.  But i got the gist: this was his wish list, his serial demands, for Chanukah gifts.  he had even starred the most wanted (with, like 6 stars, in case I didn't understand just how much he wanted these particular gifts over some of the others immortalized in  his song).

I skimmed through it quickly.  A typically greedy, acquisitive expression of the holiday spirit.  And then I read his line about the sixth night of Chanukah:

On the sixth night of Chanukah, not "my mommy gave to me..." but "and I gave toys away to the poor."

In that one line, cramped and smudged and misspelled, my son took my breath away.  In that one line, I heard God's voice and felt hope rise like a blessing.

I was right-- he has learned all the lessons I have taught.  Yes, he learned all the bad mommy stuff of which I am ashamed and try to hide.  But he learned the good stuff, too: that we are called to be compassionate and kind, to share what we have with those less fortunate, to care for others.  Oh my--- he is quite the teacher, my son.

So, yeah; sometimes he is a demon spawn from hell.  Sometimes  a whiny, pouty brat who can glare with the best of them, who pushes every one of my buttons and then finds a few more I didn't even know I had.  And sometimes, he shows me everything I need to know about love.  And so, I think I will take him off the market, and keep him with me a while longer.  <3

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Lesson, learned again.

I have this picture in my head, of what it looks like to have faith.  It is me, standing on the edge, right at the top of some impossibly high mountain, the sky a deep cerulean blue, luminous and rich, the air crisp.  I stand, poised, ready to leap. to soar and fly and float and land, without doubt, in absolute certainty, to rest gently in the palm of God's hand.

I do a lot of standing.

Faith is tough for me.

want to leap.  I want to have that certainty.  I want to rest with God, be carried through.  I want it desperately.  Sometimes, I feel it, a tiny trill of anticipation tweaked with fear and nerves and excitement, radiating out weakly from my center.  Fingers and knees tingle, and for a moment, just a moment, the barest whisper of a moment, I gather myself and breathe and

Stay.  Stuck.  Wistful and regretful.  And safe.


Like I said, I want to leap.  Sometimes that level of faith is beyond me.

And yet...

And yet, every once in a while, I soar.

And I find God's hand, outstretched, waiting for me.  Every time.  Without exception.  Every time I leap, there is God, waiting for me.

I wish I could remember that, that God waits.  Just for me.  Always.  Patient, comforting, with a hint of the eternal.  I don't though.  I stay, wrapped in my doubt like a blanket, sure (sure-ish) that fear and doubt are safer than that split second of free fall until I find God's warmth.  I hear the echo, ever and always and first, of the only prayer I had for a couple of decades: "Fuck you, God."  I wrote that prayer at a young age, sure that God had abandoned me, left me to struggle in pain, to drown in my loneliness.  I declared my apostasy loudly--- "There is no God!"

Of course, the louder I shouted, the more I could drown out the whisper that slips so softly in my head, the idea that, it was not that I did not believe in God, it was my undeclared certainty that God did not believe in me.  It was that certainty that kept me rooted, poised and still.  I cannot leap, because I am afraid that God still has His (Her?) ("It" just doesn't seem right) (some genderless pronoun to encompass God)--- I cannot leap because I am still afraid that God has His back turned away from me.

No redemption for you!  Ha!

And yet, I have leaped and soared and slipped gently into the ever-present outstretched hand of God.  My struggle, my disbelief, my lack of faith is just that: mine.  My holy and sacred quest is a shadow dance.  God is enthusiastic spectator in my solo performance.  God watches, applauding my every effort, laughing in all the right places, waiting for me to lose myself in the moment.

It is not what I pray.  It is that I pray.  That's what matters.  That's what makes God dance.

This past weekend, I got to learn something about faith.  Again.  I get to learn this particular lesson again and again.  God laughs and waits and applauds for me.  Every so often, God dances and catches me, pillowing my fall with grace.

I was at a retreat.  It was possibly all about music.  Or maybe about prayer.  Or God.  Or community.  Faith, perhaps.  All of the above.  Certainly, music was the base, a foundation of sorts.  Shabbat Shira--- Sabbath of Song.  A few dozen people came together to learn and stretch and grow and teach.  Silly me; I thought I was there to learn more about Songleading-- using music and song to lead congregants in prayer.  Simple stuff.


What I learned was all about love, and community and faith.  Yes, faith.  That damned elusive thing, that spark of God and hope that I chase with all the singularity that a drowning woman chases a life preserver floating just out of reach on a dark and wave-wracked sea.  Throw in a bit about vulnerability and truth and honesty and you have the weekend.  Our teachers stood before us, offering themselves, whole and pure and unafraid, without pretense, and made a glorious noise as they lit a path to God.  I followed.  We all did, joyously, surrounded by love and faith and hope.

How?  I asked.  I demanded.  I pleaded.  How do you do it?  How do you show up, vulnerable and raw?  How do you give?  How can I?

And really, that was my prayer.  My quest had gotten me this far: from "Fuck you" to "How can I?"  I want to serve.  I want to give.  I want to be an unsheathed flame, dancing along a path to God, letting others in to find their own paths, their own joy, their own prayer.  I want to leap.  Please God, let me leap.  One more time, let me learn the lesson of soaring.  Let me believe that I will be caught.

And my teachers, every one of them, whether they stood in front of us in service or beside me in prayer (because everyone at Shabbat Shira was my teacher), they all answered so simply, so stripped of artifice: you just do.

It is not what you pray; it is that you pray.
It is not what you do, it is that you do.
It is not what you sing; it is that you sing.

Do.  Act.  Pray. Sing.  Serve.  The grace (and gracefulness) will follow.  God will catch me, soaring or stumbling in the dark., God waits to catch me  And, after I have rested a bit, caught my breath a bit, then God and I, we'll dance.

Dedicated to my friends and teachers of Shabbat Shira 2010.
Thank you  <3

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Brother: a death in three parts

Part I
06 September 2010

My brother is dying.

As I write this, he is laying quietly, oxygen mask covering most of his face, sedated beyond recognition. He's been like this for days. Every so often, his breathing becomes labored and he becomes agitated. Great rasps then, desperate, gasping rattling breaths. So much so that we strive to breathe for him, will air into him. The nurses come to inject more of whatever it is medication that they are giving him, into the ever-present tubes that snake in him and around him.

The meds are not life sustaining. They are palliative. We hope.

The doctors say it will be soon.

And so we watch, and wait. We sit in a dimly lit hospital room, the sibilant hiss of the oxygen so constant that it is almost inaudible. Almost, but not quite. There is so much that is almost, but not quite these days.

I have been composing this particular post in my head for almost two years now. I want so much to honor him, to celebrate him and his life. I do not want to sink into the maudlin. I do not want to appear trite. I want this whole, painful, drawn-out, uncomfortable, scary, sad mess to be over. I want everything back to normal. I want my brother to be healed. Made whole. I want him to be at peace.

I want to blame someone, something. It feels as if there is so much blame to go around.

But this is not about blame. As easy as it would be to sink into that messy pit, all shiny and burbly and self-righteously fatuous, thereby avoiding all the hard stuff, like love and meaning and fear and a thousand other difficult and honest things-- this is harder.

This is about my brother, who is dying, and me trying to find some meaning in that.

I cannot talk about his death, find meaning in it, without talking about his life. He was intense and passionate and fiercely protective of those he loved. He was stubborn and opinionated. He was courageous beyond measure. He was human beyond measure, and so had his moments.

He lived on caffeine and nicotine. For decades, he walked around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other (and one tucked behind his ear, just in case). He moved constantly--- walking, pacing, jiggling a foot when sitting, tapping out a rhythm to some private noise in his head. It makes watching him now, so still and silent, all the more difficult, because it is the antithesis of him.

He hasn't opened his eyes in a few day. The last time he spoke to me, he said "This is not--- this is not--- coral!" Coral? Really? The drugs, perhaps the cancer, perhaps both, were stealing words from him, even as they stole his grace, his energy, his life. It meant something to him, surely, but the path to meaning, to connection, was becoming buried and tangled. They tell us, the nurses and aids and doctors, that he can hear us even in his stupor. So we talk to him, reassure him that he is not alone, that he is loved. We tell jokes and stories. We sit, quietly and lovingly. We hold his hand and comfort him through touch (we comfort ourselves through touch).

My baby brother is dying, and there's not a god damned thing I can do about it. All I can do is be with him, witness his journey through that dark and shadowy valley, love him. And hold his hand.

Part II
08-09 September 2010

Mom called while I was at work. "Come now. The doctors say it's a matter of hours."

I felt the ice in my center radiate outwards, a sheath of cold and darkness. God no. Please God no. Not today. Okay--- not ever, but really not today. Sundown will be Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the celebration of the world's creation. God will open the book of Life and Death tonight. God will record who will live in joy, who will die in pain. Please: don't let my brother die.

Don't let him die before I can say good bye.

Another round of sitting. Hand holding. We soothe and comfort and cry and watch. There are no masks now. His breathing, labored and difficult and strangled only a few hours earlier is quiet. Steadier. They've taken him off oxygen and he is breathing on his own. Slowly. Shallowly. We gather around him, quietly talking, reminiscing. We are learning how to care for one another again, be a close family again. After years of wear and tear, strain and hurt, we are learning to love each other again. We are fragile and cautious and have on kid gloves.

For Randy, we will do this. It is one more way to honor him.

I can't sit for long. Sitting with family is both easy and hard. It is as if our voices are rusty. If not our voices, then perhaps our hearts. We have been separate for so long. It doesn't take much time to find those familiar patterns, sink back into the rhythms that defined us for decades. What is more difficult than re-learning and re-establishing those rhythms, is reaching out to others, to prepare them for the worst. After all, we are here, together, with Randy, cocooned by our love and fear and sorrow. But we are here, together. The others are outside, separate. Although we try to bridge that endless chasm, we fall short. We are here. They are not here. There is a difference. They love him, us, no less, but there is a layer between them and this death, a thin, membranous shield. There is that microscopic difference, though the sorrow still flows in steady waves, carrying us to one another close as breath, as light or air. But, there is a difference.

The hours wear on and we continue our vigil. Randy continues to breath, to dream, to struggle against pain. It is almost sundown, almost Rosh Hashanah. "Go," urges my family. Pray, and talk to God. Find comfort and peace and struggle and light. And so, tenuously, I welcome the new year. I can lose myself in the music of the service, in its rhythms and cadences. It is the birthday of the world and God's Book opens. I shudder at that thought, even as I sing those ancient hymns. It hits me, suddenly, that this is merely another kind of vigil.

Thursday morning. Randy has had a rough night but he is stable. Ish. The nurse tells me it could be any time. Mom tells me to go to services, to pray. Another holy vigil. A small solace in the face of despair. In going through the motions of that holy dance, I get lost again, for a few hours. I feel surrounded by something, protected, sheltered. I even manage to sing B'Rosh Hashanah without stumbling, without trembling:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die..."

The shofar sounds at last. I rush back to the hospital.

And so we sit, and wait. A softly, murmuring watchfulness. Randy lays quietly, his breath soft and slow. He hasn't opened his eyes in days. We talk softly, we surround him with our love, with music and stories and love. And one last time, Randy opened his eyes and smiled and died.

Part III
23 October 2010

It's been over a month since my brother died.

Those first few days were an impossibility. Grief so palpable I could feel it rise, slow and inexorable, threatening to drown me. Guilt just as present, because I lived, because I don't have cancer, because whole minutes, sometimes hours would go by and I would realize that I hadn't thought of Randy once, that I wasn't grieving, that I may even have laughed or smiled or forgotten for just a split second that Randy had died.

We buried him on a magnificent day in September. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The leaves rustled, still summer green with just the barest suggestion of gold. There was a coming together that day. A sharing of sorrow and grief and memory. There was a gentleness that seems to be missing so often from the quotidian pace. There was a sheltering grace in that day. It went too fast and spun too slow. It was filled with sadness and laughter and family and love.

It was about honor and courage and frailty. Death was there, certainly. But life too. Little boys tumbled like puppies, shrieking with laughter and competition and exuberant joy. Adults did their own dance of remembrance. Sadness laced our speech, but we carried one another to firm ground, sheltered one another with peace and strength. Randy's final gift.

I miss him. There is a... missingness. The quality of something missing. Slightly empty and lopsided. But only out of the corner of my eye, in hindsight. It is a passing thrum, a tremor of memory and desire. I think about stories I want to tell him. What I wouldn't give to just sit with him for a few thousand years, not saying much of anything, or maybe saying everything, coffee in hand.

I miss him, and there are bills to pay and laundry to do, and work and school and oil changes and piano lessons, and... life. There is life, an abundant and full dance--- sometimes a waltz, sometimes a two step, something that fills the space of the day. If you're lucky, it morphs suddenly into a jitterbug or the Charleston, a celebration of life and joy, before slipping back to familiar paths.

I miss him. I remember him. I love him. And that's it. That's the deal. It's what matters--- not the completion, but that we journey for a time together, touch each other's lives and hearts and souls. We remember, and we live, and love and grieve. And we go on, whether it's done or not, whether it's complete or not. We walked a lifetime together, my brother and I. I am grateful for our journey, for the lessons he taught me, for the light he shone in my darkness.

Ever and always, Randy.
Zichronam liv'racha

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A matter of faith. And monkey bars

I am stuck. Really, really, really stuck. The cemented-in-place kind of stuck. You know--- the kind of motionlessness that you used to get when you were a kid, slinking low in your seat when your teacher asked a question, laser eyes searching through the sea of desks, looking past all the waving arms, all the eager faces demanding attention, demanding they be given their chance to show their preparedness. No, the teacher looked past them, through them, looking for You, the one kid who so did not know the answer, flop sweat soaking through your shirt and making your skin clammy, where you begged silently, "don't see me, don't notice me, pass me by, pleasepleaseplease," knowing that if you even hinted at movement, you would be caught, noticed, called on to answer that unanswerable question. So you made yourself small and held yourself still. Unmoving. Willfully stuck.

And you got called on anyway.

I don't like being in this place, this needy and scary place. I want to be in control, captain of my life, captain of happy. I was talking a friend, who told me that the only thing left for me to do was to ask for help. Not from a person, but from the Universe. God. Whatever I might choose to call that thing that is bigger than me, outside of me. She said it was now a matter of faith.

Too many people are talking about faith to me these days. And it's not as if these folks are regular faith talkers. In fact, they're not. I can mostly depend on them to not talk about faith. More, I can mostly depend on them to not remind me to act on my faith. So what gives? Is this God's little joke on me? Am I getting what I need, even when I want anything but? And where is my faith? I had it just a while ago. I was floating on it, sustained and strengthened by it. It is so much easier to depend on faith when life is good, isn't it? It is the question I have been asking my Sunday school kids for years: how do you approach God in the face of joy? In the face of despair? And everything in between? I thought I had answered this question, dammit. I thought I had learned this lesson. I could have sworn I had my long dark night of the soul. Years ago.

So my friend said that this was about faith. And asking for help--- but asking differently. And she said that it was ok to not know the lesson I'm being given.

But it's still scary. It still seems so large and consuming.

I hate that she may be right.

I am so used to being alone. I am the strong one, dammit. You learn, cynically--- that help doesn't come, that there is no knight in shining armor and you're no damsel in distress, but mostly that you are alone in your need and hurt. And then you get stuck, trapped in this endless loop. So you just stop asking, because the pain of being alone is always greater than whatever need you have that's driving you to ask for help.

I am the Healer of Broken Things. I do not get healed. I am strong and loving and compassionate. I slay dragons and exorcise demons and forge paths and light torches. For others. Because I don't know how to ask for myself. I don't know how to say I am in need.

I get wrapped up in the story of stuck, of the big and scary stuff. I don't always leave room for the other stuff: the small stuff, the happy and good stuff. I need to be reminded to talk about the things that are surprising and filled with grace. The things that have made me smile, that took my breath away because of their beauty or their simplicity.

So what is my good stuff? Because I need the reminder that life is not quite as heavy as I make it. I must remember the stuff that awed me or made me laugh. The stuff that got me out of my head, because I can set up camp there, live in a burnt out slum there, where I regularly mug myself. It's about faith, right? And this is part of that expression: there is good stuff in the universe, there is light and hope.

There is faith, faith enough to carry me, comfort me. Faith greater than my fear. Maybe. Perhaps. I am willing to believe that possibly, my faith is enough. That if I reach out my hand, leap into the chasm, I will be caught and held. Cherished and loved. That this dark and cold place, silent and singular and solitary, this is illusion, smoke and mirrors that are shattered with a single laugh, a kind word. I am reminded, in my faith, that it is enough to go to God and ask for help. My prayer does not change God; rather, it changes me, and my heart.

So tonight, I will act as if. Some people, some cynical people who like to dress all in black and smoke cigarettes off in the corner looking disdainful, they would call it pretending, not acting as if. But they would be wrong, damn them. They would be bitter and unhappy people. They would not wear their hair in pig tails and swing from the monkey bars. They would not know how to laugh; they would merely snicker.

So tonight, I will act as if, and laugh and swing from the monkey bars. I will act as if I live in that bright and centered spiritual place. I will act as if I am happy and unafraid.
And in my darkness, I am shown, in surety and faith, that my fears, real and scary and looming large and all-consuming, that they are made of cobwebs and dust motes. And I breathe; I move, with infinite slowness and subtle grace. I move, and it's ok to not know, to ask for help. I am not alone. There is God. There is a light. There is hope.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chasing Fireflies

I have been accused, you may be surprised to hear,  of being (shall we say) intense. When the observer is being kind. When said observer is being less kind, intensity turns to scary Too focused, too needy, too there. As a dear friend (one of the kind ones) once said, "Stacey, you never even give people a chance to miss you."

So, I had a revelation the other day. No; angels did not dance on the head of a pin, and the earth did not move, but I think I figured something out. It has to do with that intensity thing (I was going to say character defect, but I have decided to be a bit kinder to myself) (while I've been typing, because I'm nothing if not compulsive and easily distracted by bright shiny objects)(my thoughts being mostly shiny today and always bright) (and speaking parenthetically is a great illustration of my distraction). As I was about to say, before I was distracted: on to my rambling revelation - on to INTENSITY.

Here's the deal. For what felt like a thousand years, but turns out to be merely a couple of decades, I lived in a very tiny tiny universe of one. Nothing got in. Nothing got out. I had decided, somewhere around the time I started drinking, that I could not afford to be hurt again. Life was way too painful. My heart was already quite fragile, and so I wrapped my fear and my anger and my hurt around me like a shield. And I lived that way (ok, "lived" is only an approximation; I was much more like Gollum eventually became--- stretched) for a long time. It was… safe.

At least, that's what I told myself. I ignored the leaks, of course. I ignored the seepage of hurt, the numbness of anger, the whispers of pain that managed to find every chink and crack in my carefully crafted armor. They were all brief, flashes of something felt more in retrospect, when I was tired or hungry. It was a lonely and stretched thinner-than-air existence, Of course, the more I drank, the more I took refuge in alcohol asShield, the lonelier and more tired I would get.

And then, miracle of miracles--- I got sober! And after a little bit of time (Days? Weeks? A year or two? Who the hell knew? Who the hell cared?!)--- after a while, I noticed the walls of my tiny little universe of one had crumbled. The trumpet had blared under the light of a new sun, and I stood before God and everyone else, defenseless and open.

And it was good.

Ok, mostly it was good. I still have my moments, even twenty years and more later, still want to cling to the dark and comforting fog of that particular prison. But God, I was out! I was free. And I could run, and you know what? It feels like I am twirling in a starlit field, twirling and dizzy - not drunk, but alive and dizzy - and chasing fireflies. And I think, really and truly, when I stop to think at all, that this is the feeling that everyone has, all the time. This is the thing I missed for so long! This abandon and exuberance and energy. This is my shout: Hineini! Here I am, free at last, in the light of a new day. Let's play! And I really believe that everyone wants to play, to feel that dizzy, twirly, joyous thing.

Nothing is filtered anymore. All I ever did in my old half life, was filter: edit, erase, delete, change, hide, scorn, disdain. Take your pick. Everything went through layer after layer of subterfuge until it (whatever "it" was) lay dead at the feet of my metaphor. But not anymore. There are no filters. And that is the source of this intensity. I just want to play. I don't ever want to lose sight of that joy, that connection, that sense that once I was alone and now I am not. I was so alone, for so very long. I have no real frames of reference on how to be not alone. What I get is connection, this electric feeling of not alone.

I know, I know: I have to learn how to put the filters back on. Not in the way they were. Never that. But in a new way, a way that let's the light in still, but that doesn't frighten anyone either. Not an easy task. Certainly not for me, because I like the dizzy, twisty, firefly-catching dance. But I have to learn to temper it. I have to grow up a bit and learn to walk a bit and I can't keep dancing. Can I?

And so there's my revelation. It may seem trite or naive, so forgive me. It's just that there are so many fireflies to catch, and I don't want to miss a one. I want to play in that light, the dizzying, twirly light and feel connected. In the end, I am convinced it is the connections that matter--- deep and rich and life-affirming. Forgive me as I stumble through my intensity, looking for the filters that mute the intensity to bearable levels.

 In the meantime, thanks for letting me dance.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fifty short sentences, in no particular order. More or less.

1. There's no such thing as too much caffeine.
2. Buster Brown lived in a shoe; I live in my head.
3. The longest journey I've ever had to make is the one that goes from my head to my heart.
4. It's all about redemption.
5. It is not
what I pray that matters; that I pray is what matters most of all.
6. That I search for God does not guarantee that I will find God.
7. I am on a quest to live a life that matters.
8. What matters is connection-- to others, to God, to family.
9. We each of us have two families: the family into which we are born and the family we choose and gather along the way.
10. Sometimes, doing nothing is the next right thing.
11. If you wear your heart on your sleeve, you must expect it to be bruised occasionally.
12. I am a romantic in cynic's clothing.
13. They say sarcasm is a hidden form of anger; I say--- not so hidden.
14. Mom taught me that the highest compliment you can give someone is to say "You are a mensch."
15. I was once challenged to live a life of honesty and trust and a willingness to be vulnerable on a daily basis.
16. Some days, that's easier than others.
17. I try not to confuse "humility" with "humiliation."
18. Some days, that's easier to do than others.
19. If God had intended there to be flavored coffee, God would have created flavored coffee beans.
20. If you order a coffee-like drink that includes whipped cream, you have ordered a milkshake, not coffee--- even if it's hot.
21. Thunderstorms; 'nuff said!
22. I like to look at gardens; gardening itself is beyond me.
23. Music is the one sure way I can get out of my head and get close to God.
24. Writing is the one sure way I can get out of my head and get close to me.
25. I love the sky at twilight, when it glows like a Maxfield Parrish painting, outlining the world in gold and cerulean blue.
26. I think magic lives in the in-between times.
27. I used to live with the dictum "If you ignore something long enough, it will go away."
28. This rarely turned out to be true.
29. Surprisingly enough, just because you don't open a bill doesn't mean you don't owe the money.
30. Creditors don't want my money; they want their money.
31. Sometimes, I need to be reminded to breathe.
32. Compassion, kindness, love--- how rich life is when I face the world looking through this prism.
33. One man's science is another man's magic.
34. It is an amazing and profound gift, to see me through the eyes of someone else.
35. Sometimes, there are monsters under the bed.
36. I am a better teacher one-on-one than in a group.
37. I am breathless, watching my son take his first real steps outside of his childish self-absorption, into a world that includes an Otherness--- things and people and ideas that are not him, and doing it with a grace that surprises me.
38. For all that I am a liberated, independent, "uppity" woman of my generation, I find that, when push comes to shove, I am, in actuality, the Fixer of Broken Things.
39. There are times when I want to sell my son.
40. My son and I play the "guess what game" these days, and the answer is always "I love you."
41. My son knows me well enough to know which commercials I will cry at, and loves me enough to not be too embarrassed about it.
42. I get tired of always having to be the Adult.
43. I get lonely and scared and sad and lost more often than I care to admit.
44. It never ceases to amaze me that I have people in my life who hold out a hand and shine a light in my darkness.
45. My brother is dying and there's not a damned thing I can do about it.
46. I want to dance a fiery path to God, sing joyously, live fearlessly, love well.
47. I am so much more naive than I could ever have imagined.
48. I have been blessed beyond belief.
49. My favorite joke involves an impatient cow.
50. Remember to clean up your mess, speak kindly, go a little slower.
51. Try to remember that you never have to go it alone.