Books Can Save Us

I have an abundance of riches in reading material. Stacks of both purchased and advanced reader copies of favorite or new authors stacked in towers around my house. So how to pick what to read next? What do you do? I’m a sucker for a good cover. And of course I have favorite authors who I eagerly snag from the Advanced Reader pile at work. I am always hoping to understand my beloved ghosts so am drawn to titles relating to addiction, book-love, memoirs and weird places. That’s how I picked up The Lost Chapters: Finding Renewal and Recovery One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz. It checks all of the above.

Leslie Schwartz is a novelist and an addict who spent 90 days in a Los Angeles County Jail for a DUI. Before starting her sentence she chose the books she wanted to read and her family sent them to her weekly. They arrived just in time – as books seem to do. Her list included a book of Mary Oliver poetry, The Woman Warrior, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Unbroken, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (a book that saved me more than once) and one of my all time favorites, A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

“…Ozeki showed me, that time in its clock-on-a-wall form, and story as linear, like a yardstick, is often the least truthful way to talk about or understand its passage. All stories can only be re-created by collapsing the past, the present, and the future. We are not what we do, like a resume. Jail, for all its insidious horror, its odious dehumanization, its dependence on the momentum of days, of counting along the agonizing progress of calendars facing ever forward, is really a place that embraces no time, for which there is no clear understanding of its movement. In jail, time moves backward and forward, It is without symmetry, a starfish with five arms and no central brain. We are not, it turns out, simply our crimes or our release dates. We are where we came from. We are how we change. We are what we remember, and what we don’t remember. We are the moments that pass, and also the moments that stand still. Time is not our enemy but our puppet. Memory is prophecy and what we think is real is just an illusion.”

This passage from the Lost Chapters is followed by one about addiction and finding recovery. It’s gutting and beautiful and everything I know from being on the other side – loving the addict. Neither of mine ever made it through the window.

“Forcing compliance doesn’t work. It inspires retaliation and usually still more relapse. This is why rehabs and jails don’t work. And yet, addiction itself keeps the addict enslaved, unable to want to stop. I am still in awe that I was granted that tiny window somewhere along the line and even more baffling that I slipped through it.”

I love this book. The author does not whine. She owns her shit and her privilege and shares her outrage and the injustice and failures of our system – particularly for women of color.

I’ve always adored books. Walking into a bookstore even after 21 years, I still feel the thrill of all those books! New titles! And I believe that books can really save us. I am not alone. My friend Nina was devastated after the early death of a beloved sister and found comfort, healing and JOY by reading a book a day for a year. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

And have you heard about this extraordinary man, wrongfully convicted as a teen? He spent 17 years in prison — and how reading saved him. Here’s his story and here’s the organization the remarkable John Bunn created A Voice 4 the Unheard – with the goal of bringing books and literacy to prisoners. Note the story of the corrupt and wrongful conviction doesn’t figure on his website. Is it books, is it reading that allowed this man to not be bitter after 17 years wrongfully imprisoned!?  He humbles me.

Forget the deserted island – these are tricky times. What books would you want in prison?

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This Fever I Have

Sorry I’ve been away so much these last months. It’s like I’ve been a little ill. You know, like when you have a low grade fever but it’s not enough to send you to bed but you wish you could climb between the sheets and sleep until it goes away? That’s the way I’ve been feeling. For almost 2 years.

But I’m not sick. I’m angry. That’s what’s heating me up, twisting like a knot in my chest. Fury is constantly simmering in my system, sometimes spurting and steaming like my old radiators in winter. It’s not a good way to be and I don’t know how to shake it. Worse, I am unable to turn away from the wrecking ball. I regularly check the latest news of the backward steps or outright assaults on civil rights, the environment, healthcare, veterans, poor and working class people, babies separated from their parents (last count – over 500 children still not reunited), outright racism, that continues everyday under this dreadful administration.

The problem is, I don’t know what to do with my fury and sometimes, like here, it’s been debilitating. I lack the political eloquence and appetite to write about it. I am a sputterer and that’s not useful. Engaging in these discussions with someone who is (so bewildering!) on THAT side, is like road rage – it’s a no-win situation. And too late. He was successfully installed and the damage is well underway. So if you had a role in this, I’m pretty damn mad at you too, I won’t lie. I don’t know what to do with that either.

So I haven’t been able to share my usual passages of lovely morning walks or garden capers. I’ve been paralyzed and that makes me mad too. Over the years this blog is where I share meditations, stories, challenges of my life. It’s a personal blog – begun as good practice for maybe one day (or not) putting my memoir out there and I have come to love it. It’s lovely to have readers and people who cheer me on, to say, yeah – I hear you. Being part of a cyber blogging community feels rich. And, it gets me writing regularly. That is until I hit this roadblock.

But the hell with it. Today I’m going to put this out there and figure out where to go from here. That’s all we can do, isn’t it?  And come November — let’s vote the bastards out.

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Day Lily Days

The shelves at the garden center are almost empty. Only leggy, ragged plants with roots packed into their little containers like leftover spaghetti, remain. I wonder what’s next? Chrysanthemums and pumpkins? But wait – it’s only early July! Time for harvesting lettuce, maybe tomatoes if you were an early planter without greedy pests. At my place, there’s basil tucked behind my makeshift fence. Also arugula, thyme, oregano and cilantro. I picked up some new guinea impatiens – never my favorite but the only flower the groundhog ignored. I buy five at a dollar each. Walking out of the greenhouses past the once full space, now left only with boxwood and hydrangea shrubs, a tiny knot of sadness pinches my stomach.

I was in high school when I first registered a sense of melancholy around time. Not because I was happy and wanted the days to slow. I recognize now, I had long felt invisible at home and this probably inspired my urgency to capture my days. I filled journals, recording events, scrawling my angst and bad poems. I drew. I played music. Art gave me a sense of being able to own time. In creating, I felt I might claim it, especially in writing. It was as if unless I wrote about something in my life it did not exist.

The faded flowers in the picked over garden center triggered a flash of familiar poignancy. The sweetest seasons pass in a blink. In every perfumed inhale of lilacs, pinch of mint, nip of autumn air, I sense the finite. How many chances at such pleasure we get remains a mystery and too many I have loved long lost theirs. I want the daffodils of spring to last a little longer but appreciate the day lilies, rough and ready in a sprawling, wild summer explosion, a better reminder to seize today.

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Building Fences, Causing No Harm

Molly called me at work on Friday, freaked out. An animal she couldn’t identify was trapped in the rusty old milk can by the back deck.

Just kick it over so the thing can get out, I told her, and film it running away so I can see what it is. She demurred insisting she’d wait for me to come home. Lucky for the critter, I’d be there soon.

I peeked over the side of the jug, wondering if I’d see bared teeth. Instead, there was this.

A wee groundhog. I hate groundhogs as I’ve written about here every summer. (Put in groundhog in the search – you’ll see!) They devour everything I plant and they multiply like crazy. Yes, they’re a little cute when they play beneath the pear and peach trees I planted in the sunniest, best garden spot. The garden spot I gave up on because they eat everything, undeterred by fences and other foils. I thought I was clever to plant these trees, determined to still be able to get some harvest off my little patch. Groundhogs can climb trees. I’ve seen them. And they love peaches.

So here, here was a baby – my prisoner. One less pest. I didn’t immediately free the poor thing. I considered trying to move him elsewhere, out of the neighborhood so he couldn’t come back. I certainly couldn’t kill it – that’s not in my makeup unless there’s a threat to me or my loved ones. I’m a catch and release kind of gal. I wasn’t about to kill this baby. Finally, Molly kicked the the jug and the thing scampered away and then back towards us, right under the deck I thought I’d varmint proofed.

The next day, I strategized my planting. Where could I place flowers where our resident beasts couldn’t get at them? And at least a few tomato and basil plants. I had luck last year with a table with a jerry-rigged fence around it. First I had to somehow get the table outside. Molly was working so it was just me to tackle this project. You know how, once you have an idea in your head, you just want to get it done? That was me. I dragged the table through the kitchen, hoisted it over on to its side and began shimmying it across the threshold where it promptly got jammed. Banging my shin on it triggered a flash of self pity and a choke of tears as I thought of the ghosts of  the men who should have been here. But I felt them cheering me on. There was a knock at the door – certainly an extra set of hands miraculously showing up!

Jehovah Witnesses. I invited the two women out of the hot sun, offered them a cool drink (declined), watched the short video on their Ipad, told them I was fascinated by their faith but felt unmoved by the video. But don’t you want to know more about how to learn about courage from the Bible, one of them (Rose) asked? I told her I was pretty good on the courage front and that right about now, hearing anything about the Bible makes me mad because of the way passages are being bandied about by the current administration to justify so many despicable policies and practices.

They nodded. Both African American and certainly more vulnerable to injustices than I, they did not disagree. Turns out, Rose is a neighbor from my city so I told her about the storytelling I help to organize in the community and suggested she come – although only to tell a story, not to proselytize. I took her literature and she took mine and she said she’d like to come back and talk with me more and I’d welcome her onto my front porch for a chat although I highly doubt she’ll be converting me. I think she just wants to talk again and I would too and maybe we can take to the streets together, sharing our outrage side-by-side.

Meanwhile, there was a table to move. Refreshed by my chat with the ladies, I managed to move said table out onto the deck. I hammered wood posts to hold up the fencing. I like the feel of swinging a hammer, the connection with the nail, the tightening of wood to wood as the weight of the hammer drives it together. I’ll have to get a ladder to harvest from my little table plot but I did it. I made a new friend, built my little fence and no groundhogs were killed or separated from their parents.

How was your weekend?

 

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Mornings the Moon and a Wood Walk

Mornings are still dark when I wake and recently I opened my eyes and saw the moon just outside my window. My head still on the pillow, I spent a few minutes staring at it clear and silver in the sky. Full or close to it, waxing or waning, I’m not sure and it doesn’t matter. It’s the same moon and always there even if we cannot see it and that’s a comfort to me. I thought of the distance, all that space between me and the moon and about the incredible spinning involved to keep us all here. Thinking so much beyond what will I wear today or make for lunch was a great way to start the work day.

Looking up at the sky, thinking about space, casting my gaze at the stars or the sun or even a passing plane – my brain seems to expand. It feels as good as a stretch. A psychic stretch. My imagination gets charged by this simple exercise of thinking beyond where I am while being where I am. Realizing the vastness of being in the present. Does that make sense?

Meanwhile, back on earth on this Sunday morning, I went with my friend Tracy for a hike. We tramped on a path through the woods – nonstop talking because we always have so much to catch up on and even later, I think of something else I meant to tell her. She’s that kind of dear friend. We walked through the intermittent rain across a field and down a nice wide trail and through wetlands full of skunk cabbage and fiddleheads, past boulders and ponds. We were welcomed into this wood by a magnificent pileated woodpecker – gigantic and noisy. Cool and damp, smells and sounds (the birds!) of Spring. The just emerging leaves creating a soft green wash across the landscape.

We saw only one runner, a dog walker and 2 women – our age and gabbing like we were. One of them under an umbrella. Tracy and I both had hoods and weren’t worried about getting wet and she also didn’t care when I got mud in her car. And on the drive back, she asked what that noise was without being too worried and I suggested it was the wind through her car’s skylight. But when we stopped for coffee, I opened the car door and discovered that the sleeve of my jacket had been flapping outside. We laughed hard because it was so silly and we were happy. The coffee was good and I feel grateful to be spinning along and out on this planet during the morning hours in the sweet early greening of Spring.

What did you do this weekend?

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Remembering

On May 1st 14 years ago, the weather was just like today’s although Spring was further along back then. We’d already had many days of sitting out on the porch and working in the garden. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it probably looked so too, if you didn’t know the dissolution in progress. Molly on the verge of turning 9 years old – did her best to stay neutral between us. The evening before I thought we’d made a breakthrough – that we’d be able to move forward in creating a new life – as separate, loving parents to our girl. Yes, she could spend Christmas with him in England and summer holidays. We’d make it work. But no, I didn’t want a cup of tea, I was going to sleep.

The next morning, the light was extraordinary when I woke in the room that Molly now sleeps in. Shadows and light of morning glows like a treehouse when the trees are in bloom.

There are no leaves out yet – so far there is only the red weight of flowers on the tips of branches promising, promising to deliver soon. This morning I woke at an odd hour and did not return to sleep – remembering, feeling him here, one of my benevolent ghosts. For years, I took the day off, but I no longer feel paralyzed by grief. Time does this. The sadness comes in flashes, unpredictably – thoughts of the terrible morning, imagining the pain he was in was so great that he couldn’t have imagined ours. Could he?

Every day I remember him. And often, those memories inspire laughter. Out for a walk on Sunday, Molly and I greeted a group of men as we passed them, all hovering over an old car. We continued on and in my mind, Neil was with us but had stopped to join the banter. We walked ahead as he made new friends. Laughing, I told Molly this – that if her dad was with us how we’d be still standing at the end of the street waiting until he caught up, his long strides covering the distance in half the time. He’d fill us in on who they were and what they were up to – a marvel that he’d be able to garner so much information since he was usually the one doing the talking. He’d have told him about the Maserati we once owned for a month in Italy before it was stolen. Or some old beauty antique he’d driven in England before my time. He was there with us.

Out walking Rufus after work today, one of my neighbors stepped out of her house to chat with me. Our first post-winter catch-up. Had I heard about the mailman busted for stealing money and gift cards out of our boxes? We caught up on the kids and then she asked with a pause,  ‘isn’t this…’ yes, I answered, with my voice suddenly thick with the rumble of possible tears. Thank you for remembering. She said, I’ll never forget.

 

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Forced blossoms

I pruned the dickens out of the two peach trees a few months ago. Ever an optimist, I stuck the branches in buckets and vases throughout the house and breezeway hoping to hurry Spring. It didn’t really work. Out of the many dozens of sticks, one bloomed. While my experiment ended up making my house look more like Miss Havisham’s than Martha Stewart’s, this one elegant spray was enough to make it worth it. See?


It’s a little convoluted but somehow, these pink beauties encouraged me to pay attention to my neglected blog. I’ve started many actual posts that remain sitting in my cyber home as drafts. I’ve ‘written’ even more – mentally. During the last few weeks there have been a few nights when I woke up with what seemed like almost formed essays and thought – grab your computer – do it! More devoted to sleep than words, instead I rolled over. I’ve been inspired on many meanders with our little mutt Rufus. Captivated by something on a sparkling morning or moonlit night I thought – today I will blog – and didn’t.

I’d like to say I’ve been writing other things – but I’d be lying. For me, writing is like exercising or yoga or meditating. If I don’t carve out a time to do it everyday – it falls by the wayside. My discipline in all things has lagged. The hours are eaten up by mundane routine of life – work and socializing or on the couch reading and watching what always feels like too much television even if I insist to myself that it’s mostly good stuff – English mysteries and reputable news. Ha! And let me confess too, my shame about lost hours staring at social media sites like some bored teenager. Ugh. So that’s what happened.

My lone blooming peach branch out of all those branches in 4 different buckets and 2 vases, made me thing that as well as being lazy, maybe I’m being too precious lately about about what I post here. There’s certainly a bit of existential angst – why am I doing this for all these bloody years? But I’m pushing back against this paralysis! Inspired by the damn twigs so hopefully sitting in water for months, I’m going to write and trust that out of it all, sometimes there will be a beautiful bloom.

Creativity is a lot about showing up and doing it. I need to get back into working the muscle. Like moving my body or eating right, getting enough sleep – all things I feel better doing so why not do these things? Yes – it’s been winter, hibernation and all that. But enough. The blossoms are blooming and today, without rereading this a million times, doubting, tweaking, fussing — I’m going to press publish.

How was your winter?

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Being Quiet and Learning to Breathe Again

Sometimes, I need to be quiet. That’s my excuse for silence here. I can be a talker but recently I’ve needed to listen to the wind, the birds, the waves and an often elusive silence. I’ve been cultivating quiet inside of me even as I hear the endless hum of cars on the nearby highway.

Over the past month, I have started paragraphs of posts and then abandoned them as I wrestle with what this blog is for me. It’s personal yet not my journal. I write memoir and that requires raw honesty and so in this space where I have a kind community of readers and fellow bloggers, I should work on that.

I’ve had some dramatically rough patches but that’s just the stuff of life, right? Everyone has a story and together we’re here in a sea of waves of sadness and joy churning away on this remarkable planet spinning through the universe. Somehow we all do our best to hold on for the ride. I’m determined to live this downward slope of my life in as much joy as I can muster. I aspire to not be burdened by the past nor to worry about the future because it is only in the present that breath exists. And I’m filling my lungs!

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Ushering in Love and Light

I start my New Year here, with a mountain of pillows plumped behind me, dog Rufus snuggled against my thigh, sunlight pouring through the window and not a single commitment to the outside world. It’s rare that I catch the movement of light across my room in a day. I will make another cup of tea and return to read, write and dream as the sun shifts in glorious show through my different windows. I am in heaven. This is enough.


I prefer to usher out the old and welcome the New Year in quietly. As my like-minded friend Jennifer put it yesterday – there are the revelers and the reflectors. In the past, I would feel compelled to join my jolly and beloved reveler friends in the neighborhood. It seems expected, and especially now that I am single, these dear ones worry about me. No one likes to think of us single people by ourselves, alone at New Year. We should be celebrating! It can even be hard for me not to buy into that notion – so sometimes, I force myself to join in.

But honestly – I’d rather be reflecting.

Or at least quiet. I’m not a fan of the American way of celebrating the end of the year – being noisy and whooping it up in a frenzy towards midnight. I don’t judge anybody else for wanting to do that, but please don’t feel sorry for me either. Just beam me up to Kyoto every year at this time, and I’ll be happy.

New Year celebration in Japan is a saner business. It’s a time for ritual cleaning and getting rid of negativity. So I celebrated Japanese style here – cleaning my space – especially this space where I wake every morning and now revel in the light and quiet. I lit some sage and ‘smudged’ the house – briefly opening the window to fan smoking old energy out into the frigid air.

Although 2017 brought me profound sadness, there has also been incredible pleasure. This is the year my dear daughter graduated from college. We adopted Rufus – a pretty perfect dog. My daughter and I are healthy. And these last two weeks, the cloud of sadness blocking my joy, lifted. Somehow, I feel in my bones that in our vast universe – Rob is at peace. And his love – still with me.

Of course I’d rather be moving ahead in life with either one of the two beautiful  yet troubled men I committed to and once believed I’d grow old with. I miss them. But — I am not unhappy alone. I am grateful for the love and that I still sense – and them both, now at peace, freed from demons they tangled with in this life. I have that — and this beautiful girl and our pup delivering regular doses of love and light – even at night. I am lucky.

I wish love and light for you, dear readers, and a Happy New Year!

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Clearing the Way

Christmas Eve I cleaned my gutters. At least the ones I could reach from my rickety wooden painter’s ladder or by climbing up on our flat roof garage. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do this last year thus the great layer of sludge that, if I were that kind of efficient, organized person, would become perfect compost for my garden. Instead, I scooped and tossed the rich goop down below with a splat, trusting the coming rain and snow will wash it all away.

Reaching the gutters around the garage and breezeway entailed scooching along the edge of the roof – not exactly treacherous but some bone certainly would have cracked if I’d taken the 7 foot fall.

At first I was fearful wondering what the hell I was doing up there on Christmas Eve when I should have been baking cookies. But I moved carefully and stayed focused and in less than 5 minutes felt at ease.

Every year I try to do some pre-New Year’s cleaning and my gutters seemed a good one — a perfect symbol for my clogged psyche, heavy with sediment. While sitting on the edge of the roof, I pushed through some of it – including a good dose of fear and anxiety.

Earlier in the day I heard an inspiring interview on On Being interview with David Steindl-Rast – this wonderful sounding 90 year Austrian monk who has to be a good guy because he was pals with Thomas Merton. If you have time, read through or listen to the whole interview – you might find it inspiring too.

This bit resonated with me and I thought about it again while crouching on the shingles: “… anxiety has a way of paralyzing us… But what really paralyzes us is fear. It’s not the anxiety, it’s the fear, because it resists. The moment we give up this resistance — everything hinges on this trust in life. Trust. And with this trust, with this faith, we can go into that anxiety and say, it’s terrible, it feels awful. But it may — I trust that it is just another birth into a greater fullness.

That’s where I’m headed: a greater fullness. From my roof I took it slow, payed close attention and managed to enjoy the view.

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