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Always Be Telling Truth or You Should Only Be Happy.

March 3, 2013

My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. ~ Anne Lamott

I met my friend Robert Wilder yesterday in the lobby of the Inn Of The Anasazi in Santa Fe, where I had slept the night before. I’d stayed in the hotel room of my friend Katie from L.A., who coincidently, also happened to be in Santa Fe. Her trip had been planned. Mine not so much. Ronan passed away on February 15th and the memorial was chosen for this weekend so I booked my flight just a few days ago.

Robert asked how I knew Katie and I told him that she took my classes but that now we had become close friends.

Robert’s a writer (a fantastic one) and a high school English school teacher. (He calls his students High Schooligans if that gives you an indication of his cool teacher status.) The Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society kind of teacher, the kind you appreciate much later upon looking back at who formed you, at who maybe taught you to really love books and writing and expressing yourself. My “Robert Wilder” was Mrs. Lifshey in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, who I remembering running into when I was getting my hair done for my senior prom. I had been trying on a rhinestone pair of earrings and she’d spotted me as she sat getting her own hair highlighted. She bought me the expensive fake diamond earrings “anonymously” that my mother couldn’t afford at the time. (My mom knew and didn’t keep it anonymous. Obviously.)

Robert and I sat on the leather sofa in the lobby of the Inn of the Anasazi and he asked me Is it hard to be friends with your students? 

Is it hard? Well, first off, I don’t have students. He has students. He is an English teacher to teenagers. I write and teach yoga. I write things that people respond to. (Sometimes.) In no way do I think of them as my students. That feels pretentious  and sort of holy to me. I’d rather think of them as my tribe. Or not-student students.

But yes, it can be hard I suppose. Like being a person in the world can be hard or being a daughter or a wife can be hard. Like how anything you love can be hard.

Here’s why it can be hard with my not-student students: I am afraid to expose myself and have them see that I am a regular person who gets depressed and thinks she looks fat sometimes and drinks too much coffee and wine and doesn’t always walk the talk.

I write about all that (and more) but there is a difference in writing about it and then actually having someone see you in the flesh as the youest you there is.

My belief is that when you are telling the truth, you are close to God. So says Anne Lamott. Yet and still, my paper creates a chasm, a separation. A wall between me and everyone else in the world. There is a distance between the reader and myself even when I am being my most vulnerable and truthful.

There is a little bit of Us and Them when you are standing in front of a class. You are in a glass case and although everyone can hear you no one can really get in. There is a you can’t really see me even though you think you can.

When you are with someone in person over lunch that distance is minimized and then there they are right up in your face, their eyes all over you, their minds making up stories and facts.

Or not.

A couple months ago I went to Atlanta to see my sister and nephews and to lead a workshop. My sister mentioned to me that she had said something to my friend (who had started as a not-student student) something about me always being on my phone.

I was horrified.

I told my sister that she should have not said that to this person. That it made me look bad and that I had an image to uphold. (Ha!) Me always being on my phone suggested that I wasn’t present, that I was full of shit. How dare she say that to someone who takes my classes? She felt bad and said that she thought this person and I were really close friends. We are I said. But still.

But still.

There is no but still.

The distance was zippered up and there was no space between us anymore and it’s true I look at my phone too much. It’s an addiction. I didn’t want that side of me exposed because in my mind it was bad enough I was friends with my not-student student but now they would see all my faults and that I was full of shit and they wouldn’t be my student or my not-student student and possibly not even my friend. (Oh, the stories! The stories!)

I brought it up at the workshop that weekend in Atlanta where my sister and the friend/ not-student student were both in attendance. My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. I told the story and shared my shame and used it as an example of where I wasn’t living a congruent life. I also used it as a way to express what I felt about there not being a division between me and my not-student students.

They are people. I am people. The same.

I was terrified I would become some sort of fallen icon. As teachers of any kind, we’ve all had people become fixated or obsessed and tell us How Amazing We Are and then one day they get bored or decide you are a Real Life Human Being and you never hear from them again.

I was terrified that someone who sees me as an inspiration would realize I look at my iPhone too much and that I don’t pay enough attention and dismiss me.

My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God.

So yea, Rob I said on the couch there. It is hard sometimes.

But it’s only hard when I make it so. Yes, it is hard for me to be friends with everyone. (I am not special in that truth.) No one can be there for every single person nor should they be. I can’t get back to everyone. I can’t go to everyone’s play or class or band or whatever it may be, but, there are indeed some people that I meet because they take my class or read my writing or come on a retreat and who I know I want to have a glass of wine with. It is incidental to me that we met through my yoga class or my retreat or my blog. Why should I be any better than them or put myself on a pedestal because I teach them how to do a downdog or because they read an essay and feel inspired by something I said?

The only time it’s hard is when someone puts an unrealistic expectation on me or when I try to make everyone happy. I can’t do that. (I’d like to remember more often that I can’t do that. I’d like us all to remember more often that we can’t do that.)

But it’s also not hard I said. The most natural thing for me is connecting with people. When I meet someone that I want to know better it doesn’t matter if I am their “teacher.”

Look, everyone in my life is my teacher. You. You reading this. Everyone. (We should all recognize this more often.)

Look, I do want to do better.

I want to do better than yesterday at least. I want to be more present and not look at my phone so much and to never gossip and all the rest, but the people who learn from me are pretty clear that I am not a guru and I am as down to earth as they come.

Yet I also want to live a congruent life. That is what it really boils down to. My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God.

I tell people to pay attention and notice what fills them with awe and wonder and to write down their five most beautiful things and yet I am not present? It’s not that it’s because I am their teacher and they are my student that I want to be congruent or do better but rather I want to Always Be Telling The Truth.

ABTTT. Always Be Telling The Truth. And if my nose is stuck in my phone texting and I am not looking out the window, well then, I am missing my own five most beautiful things, aren’t I?

If someone takes my class and then we become friends and they decide they no longer want to take my class because the boundary has been crossed or because I curse or don’t do enough of my own yoga practice, well then, so be it. What can I do? They come, they go, they come again and all the while I am here ABTTT or doing my best version of it.

My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God.

The truth is that I can’t be friends with everybody. (Neither can you.) Nor do I want to. (Neither can you. Trust me.) Nor do you want to. So get over it. Not possible.

I can love as best as I can and I can keep teaching and writing but I cannot be friends with every single person who takes my class or reads me. It’s not humanly possible and that’s okay. The people pleasing days are falling away and the days of ABTTT are coming fast and hard.

Today is one year since my beloved Steve Bridges died. I came to Santa Fe on Thursday for Ronan’s memorial. I have been to Santa Fe a few times while Ronan was alive to visit him and his mom Emily Rapp, but this time was the first time I got altitude sickness. My heart woke me on Friday night beating as fast as a heart can beat before it explodes.

I thought I was dying.

I started to have an anxiety attack which may have been triggered by the racing heart or my monkey mind. (Take your pick.) My lips cracked and I was sweating and freezing at the same time which is as awful a combination as milk and soda. I am dying as I crawled through my friend Heather’s cute Santa Fe house in the dark in search of something that might save me. I found coconut water.

I forgot that it was the anniversary of Steve’s death today until his sister texted me It’s one year and then I realized it wasn’t altitude sickness at all. ABTTT. My body remembered as it always does even though my brain might not agree to.

My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God.

I miss him. That’s the truth. And yes, he started as a not-student student. I miss him and not in that way we say to everyone and their mother on Facebook when we haven’t seen them for a week. I miss you I miss you I miss you when we don’t really mean it.

I miss him. And I will never ever see him again. At least not in this lifetime. My body was rejecting the whole weekend. Ronan’s memorial, my husband’s cousin’s funeral Saturday and Steve’s anniversary of death. Too much it said. Too much! Too much my body whimpered.

So what does it matter if someone takes my classes and also eats pancakes with me? It doesn’t. It would matter if I was a vastly different person on paper or in class that I am in “real life’ but I am not. (To a fault I am pretty much the same.)

They are people. I am people. The same.

Most of the people in my life now entered via my yoga classes or my writings. I say Thank God for the not-student students who have turned into beloveds. Thank God I found you.

As I was getting on the plane (you guessed it, I am writing this from the airplane) I saw an old man reading an even older looking book called You Should Only Be Happy.

The book was written by a Jewish man and from what I could gather was a lot about Jewish culture (although you should google it because I could be way off and just making up a story.) I started talking to the man and he was an old Jew from New York  who now lived in Santa Fe. I chuckled as he held my hand. I said So are you part of the Tribe? (an oft asked semi-obnoxious question Jews sometimes ask one another) and he looked at me and said Isn’t everybody?

Isn’t everybody? 

So, is it hard to be friends with my students? Yes and no and everything in between.

Aren’t we all human? Isn’t, as my new airport friend put it, everybody part of the tribe. Isn’t everybody?

You Should Only Be Happy. Always Be Telling The Truth. Stop Looking at Your Phone So Much. Pay Attention. Drink More Water. Honor The Dead. Drink With Loved Ones. Eat Bread Baked By Your Friends. Have More Sex. Read Anne Lamott and Cheryl Strayed. Do Some Yoga.

Look, I could go on and on but then I would be sounding like a teacher. I would be sounding like I knew what the hell I was talking about.

They are people. I am people.

The same.

~~~~

Dedicated to Steve Bridges and Ronan and Robert Wilder and Emily Rapp and the old man in the airport and Heather and Katie and my sister and anyone else I have ever loved or crossed paths with regardless of how we met. We are the same.

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as always by simplereminders.com

as always by simplereminders.com

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And So It Is, How To, loss

No Such Thing As Right.

February 27, 2013

You think you know what is right but you don’t. There’s no such thing.

There is only I am feeling my way around in the dark here and this feels like the table and this feels like the light switch but you never know until you know. Sometimes it’s when you flip the switch and the light actually comes on. Sometimes it’s not for years and sometimes you never know.

On Sunday my husband was about to get on a plane to go to a funeral in St Louis when his cousin called him from St. Louis and said that they were now going to have the funeral in L.A. and there was no point anymore for him to come. My husband’s cousin died 2 weeks ago when he’d had a heart attack and then crashed the tow truck he was driving. His wife had been in St. Louis at the time where they live. She flew out to L.A. immediately, and tried, in her blubbering hysterics, to decide if they should ship the body back to St. Louis or keep it in L.A.. My husband asked me what I thought.

I never go visit my father at his cemetery. He is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Pennsauken, New Jersey and it makes me feel depressed and cold. His tombstone is near a family friend’s who died of ovarian cancer when I was 18 and also the four brothers I’d gone to elementary school with who died in a fire.

I used to have extreme guilt about not going until I got very clear that my father was absolutely not there under that headstone. My father and I chat a lot in our dead-father to alive-daughter way and lord knows I write about him enough. He’s right here. He definitely is not there.

He stopped being anywhere in this world when he died in 1983, in fact. I can’t say what’s beyond but I can tell you that his physical body stopped breathing and that he know longer existed as a walking talking Melvin David Pastiloff. I can tell you that 100% for certain.

When Robert asked me what I thought I told him that it was a very personal choice but that I didn’t see the point of shipping the body as it wasn’t him anymore. The body has nothing to do with him at this point. But who am I to say? He told me that the wife would want to visit him at the cemetery once a week. (Naturally I felt a little guilty when I heard that being that I haven’t visited my father’s grave in years.) Once a week? That’s a lot. Okay, maybe she should ship the body. I don’t know.

There is no right with this, I said. There is only keep moving. Keep breathing.

So he was about to get on the plane and they called and said Don’t come and I went back and picked him back where I’d dropped him 2 hours earlier at LAX. They are having the funeral here in L.A. now. So much back and forth. No one could decide as if they were waiting for someone to come up with the right answer.

There is no right answer.

My mother didn’t let my sister and I go to our father’s funeral. She has no idea now why she made that choice. Someone probably told her that it was the right thing to do or that we would have nightmares. I have spent my whole life wishing I had gone so I could have heard the people tell stories about him and cry over him and wish him back into the world. I wanted to be there for his honoring.

Was it the right thing to do? There is no right thing. There is what gets done. There is you have to keep breathing and you have to do whatever you have to do to keep breathing.

Tomorrow I fly to Santa Fe to go to Ronan’s memorial.  (There is no right! There is no right I tell you!) I will miss the funeral of my husband’s cousin which will take place here in L.A. because I will be in Santa Fe at a baby’s memorial. There is nothing right about any of this.

I just keep moving around in the dark and hoping that sooner or later I find the switch for the light.

I imagine my father’s funeral as a dream-like painting and I am inside the painting.

It’s a colorful oil-based rendition of people in various stages of grief. My feet barely touch the floor in this painting. I am eight.

There are also people outside the painting, staring in.  They mill about, champagne and cheese in hand, commenting on us there inside the surreal painting of my father’s funeral.

We are still, those of us inside the painting. As if we are waiting for something.

We are waiting for something.

Someone outside the painting takes a charcoal pencil and shades our voices a color the sound of sand. The color of mute. We go quiet.

In my next painting my father’s face will be drawn closer to mine and his arm will touch my arm. And in this one he won’t even have to die. We won’t be at a funeral anymore.

Time will be un-stuck. It will move as we move. It will flow off the canvas and into the room of voyeurs searching for something, anything to talk about.

I can do that, you know. I can make it a painting come to life like that. I can create it over and over with brushstrokes and anecdotes because I wasn’t there and I will never have been there and there is no one that can say That was the right thing to do or That was the wrong thing to do.

There is no such thing.

There is no right.

There is only go and breathe and love and get up in the morning and take the next breath and the next and when someone tries to tell you that this or that is the right thing just look at them and keep breathing. Keep going.

right-wrong

Little Seal, loss, love

Dirt.

January 10, 2013

I am sharing this again because it is so dear to me. Please read this. Please send Ronan love and prayers that he is not scared when he passes. He is a the end of his little life. Love you guys. Thanks for reading this one. Please share it.

The Land Of Enchantment.

A couple days ago, we took a road trip.

Emily, Ronan, and me. Two-year-old Ronan, packed in the back, his small, floppy head propped up with stuffed animals and socks, his face reflected in a crooked, little mirror, so Emily, his mom, could look into it every so often as she drove in case he had a seizure or stopped breathing.

Tay Sachs has its hold on this little boy. This perfect little boy making cooing noises in the back seat as we marveled at trees and patterns of light and talked about what it means to be happy and how even when you are happy, you are still a little bit sad.

Or at least I am.

Our first stop after we left Santa Fe was the The Chimayo Sanctuario.

It was hot when we stepped out of the car, hotter than it has been in Santa Fe. Gusts of warm wind blowing my dress around in a way that would normally make me laugh and feel sexy and silly, but this day, I immediately felt tired and wanted to lie down in the little outdoor church area. Growing up as a Jew, at least until I was eight, I didn’t really know what to call that little area, but I knew I wanted to lay my head down on it and rest as people walked by and snapped pictures or prayed. Some smoked cigarettes, which felt somehow unholy given the heat.

Emily had told me as we walked that Chimayo was the meth capital of the world. I watched the smokers in front of us and wondered what meth felt like. I didn’t really want to know, but we were in the capital and the heat made me tired and curious.

Emily had said that she loved Chimayo and that it had holy dirt.

She had me at holy dirt.

My hearing had been especially horrendous during this trip. As if there are things here that mustn’t be heard. Things of loss and heat and dirt and dying babies. Most of the things she told me during this visit I only half-heard, so maybe when she said holy dirt, she didn’t say that at all.

But there is holy dirt here indeed!

We entered the church and sat in the back. The art on the walls somehow reminded me of my mother, so I kept whispering to Emily how my mom would love it here. It was vibrant and colorful, its beauty simple and poor-looking. I knew my mom would love the folk art like Emily did. We traced our fingers over the woodcarvings and the blue of the pregnant bellies.

There were a few old women up front praying, their mouths repeating the same shapes over and over. Although I did not know what they were saying, I knew that they were deep in reverie, deep in connection, somehow sitting on the bench and yet also floating somewhere with a dead relative or baby or Jesus himself. Who knows? They were in a trance but also somehow aware of us as we walked by, enough that they smiled with their eyes and part of their lips without stopping the flow of prayer. It was like a magic trick. I felt weird to stare yet I did.

I mean, I suppose I went in there to pray in some way, although I didn’t know it until we walked through the door.

I didn’t even know what Chimayo was until we got there. But these women were praying with every ounce of their bodies, like they were born to do this and had waited in a long line of life events that included births and deaths to get here. I was just hoping Ronan wouldn’t suffer and that Emily would be okay. I didn’t even have a real prayer. I just quietly looked over at them and then to the front of the jaw-dropping gorgeous New Mexican church and sent a wish out to the Jesus statue in whatever language I could muster.

I think I put my hands together in prayer, like I do when I teach yoga, and asked him in sign language “Please let Ronan feel nothing. Please let Emily feel something.” 

We went to the room where the holy dirt was, and it clearly said No Pictures, but, naturally, being me, I took a few. I am like a thief when it comes to inspiration. Whether words or images, if I see it and it touches that place where things are born, I must capture it.

I took some photos and then Emily went in and scooped up some holy dirt and put it on Ronan’s sweaty head and his little feet where she had painted his toenails a gold, glittery color. I went in and did the same. I also took a little baggy of it for my sister or anyone else who needed holy dirt. Who knows, maybe I needed it?

We went into the Vigil Shop where they sold popsicles and chile and souvenirs. (They even ship chile! The sign out front boasted.)

We agreed, as we stood under a tree for a moment of relief from the sun, that the land felt different here.

I felt much like I do in Ojai, California, where I lead many of my yoga retreats. More connected to the land, more inspired and awake, like there was a current running through me that had been asleep but, upon stepping in holy dirt, was reignited. Like I became a person again after a long time of forgetting how to be.

Chimayo felt sacred in the way that The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris did in July, when I went to see where Jim Morrison was buried, not because I wanted to, but because I was dragged. I went with my childhood babysitter, with whom I had been reunited after her only son, age nineteen, was killed in a drunk driving accident last August. It was her greatest wish to see Jim Morrison’s grave. I was annoyed at having to go, especially because it was half-raining, I was sick, and we got lost, but once we got there, it was like nothing else. All the tombs like little houses, each different from the next in the most beautiful ways. I wanted to lie down on them and see what it felt like—not in morbid way, but rather to be connected to such beauty. Rarely have I seen such beauty associated with death.

I felt like that in Chimayo—far from Paris, Jim Morrison’s grave, and Ojai but with the vast knowledge that the holy dirt was the same. If I tasted it in Paris or California, or if I knelt down in that little room in Chimayo, it would all taste the same. I would be healed or I wouldn’t, but it would be the same. I wasn’t really far from beauty wherever I was in the world at any given moment.

We carried on to Taos, and I remembered the first time I had been there.

I drove across the country with my mother, sister, and best friend at the time. I remember eating tuna fish from a can in the back seat and alternating drivers. I remember the colors in New Mexico being so different from what I knew growing up in New Jersey and California. In Taos, I had a flood of memories, which is good because I am writing a book, but I had to shake them off to be present for Ronan. What if this is the last time I see him? 

Emily says maybe it will be, or maybe not. No expectations is what she is working on. No expectations of what his death will be like, whether or not she should travel to Germany for a week in October (because it could as easily happen while she is teaching or at the store). No expectations of what life will be like after.

As we sat in the chapel, Emily told me of the pilgrimage people make to come to Chimayo, the last mile or two on their hands and knees so they arrive bloody to the church for their penance. I was in disbelief that people still did this sort of thing but also in awe at the sheer will and belief in what is possible, in miracles and magic and holy dirt.

There were children’s shoes and booties everywhere, left as offerings, which made me feel sad as I sat there with Ronan because he would never wear shoes to walk or run or to look cool for a girl on a first date.

He would never walk or crawl on his hands and knees to make a pilgrimage.

That’s when I decided that I would make one for him. That actually that is what we were doing out there in the hot New Mexican sun as we walked on bridges and stood in churches and sat in cars.

Here we were, eating holy dirt and driving through The Rio Grande Gorge as we listened to bad music. We sang out loud, and it was all for him. It was all so we could keep giving him these particular pieces of ourselves, these grains of holy dirt, to take with him wherever it was he was going.

~~~

Please order Emily Rapp’s book. It will be out in March. I just finished it and WOW. Click here.

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Little Seal, MindBodyGreen

4 Things I Learned From a Two Year Old Who Is Dying.

September 19, 2012
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My latest is up on MindBodyGreen. Please take a moment and read it. Leave comments there and not here please. Love you guys xo jen

Here is an excerpt…

 

1) How to be present

Ronan just is. He sits there in his stroller or propped up on his pillows and simply soaks up the energy of the room, a big baby sponge who sometimes has choking fits and seizures. He doesn’t ask for much. He knows when his mom is near. He knows when love is present. He knows when he needs to be fed. You feel silly when you find yourself worrying about the “what if’s” of life when you are in his presence, like he is some baby Buddha who has all the answers. He understands what it means to be still and also to have no expectations. He is present for his life in a way that is at once disarming and beautiful.

2) How to love

The love you feel for this child is impossible. Can’t you feel it, even having never met him? What if we let ourselves love in this way more often? Without any expectations, without regret, with only the here and the now and the open-hearted abandon that comes with knowing how fast the clock is ticking… how each kiss on his soft little face could be the last?

 

Continue reading by clicking here.

Hearing Loss, loss, my book

Investigating Loneliness.

September 16, 2012
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I was in a yoga class a couple weeks ago, and my teacher, Annie Carpenter, kept using the word investigate to cue us in the poses.

Investigate the backbend.

I liked the idea of being a detective when it came to my backbend, to the way my foot felt on the mat. I liked the way this verb felt in me, the way it rolled around and ended up in so many different landscapes. I planted the seed of investigation and what came up out of the earth of me was:

Investigating loneliness.

The old couple that lived next door to us for years in New Jersey, Kay and Jerry and how she got hit by a car in front of the church across the street and never came back from the hospital, staying there for months before she finally died of some complication. How he died of loneliness. How I think it must not be that hard. I’m investigating that.

Sometimes I sit in my apartment and get stuck there. Literally stuck. The quicksand of my desk chair. The sinking mud of my bathroom mirror.

The phone rings and the texts come in, the emails. All of it with its own little rythym of relevance: Pick me up! Answer me! Call me back! Go here! You should do that! I stare at it them like little soldiers, these little missives and misfits and messages and patiently wait for it all to stop. Mesmerized by my ability to want to turn it all off, to make my nearly deaf ears a little more hushed. Noiseless as shock, I sit at my desk or in my bed and wrap myself in a feeling close to nothing.

What is this feeling? I have so many things to be done, so many people to call back, so many things I have let slip between the cracks of my mind and yet I can’t move.

Everyone is laughing and I might join is so as not to look stupid but I have no idea what they are laughing about, their muted laughs frogs in throats. I might as well be floating on a piece of bark at sea with nothing but the clothes on my back and my thoughts to keep me from drowning. I have no idea what you are laughing at! I scream in my head as I laugh along, my hearing loss incapable of disguise. That feeling of laughing when you have no idea why everyone is laughing, that’s a kind of loneliness I want to tell you about also.

How can you feel lonely when you have so many friends, when you are always around people? I imagine on my computer screen after this blog post, being sent in an email from someone feeling sympathetic somewhere. On the bottom, in the comment section below, platitudes like: You are never truly alone!  You may feel lonely but you are never alone! You are so loved.

I was in Santa Fe a couple weeks ago eating at Pasquals with my friends, the writers Emily Rapp and Chris Abani. We were chatting about the difference between sympathy and empathy. Emily’s baby is dying so these types of conversations are normal over Huevos motuleños. (This dish includes banana on top of eggs and while at first I thought the idea horrifying, I came around once I tasted Emily’s.)

Chris and Emily were saying that with sympathy people make it about themselves. Whereas empathy is truly about you, whoever you are. Makes sense. I agreed. That’s why sympathy doesn’t feel authentic, why it’s rejected like a banana on an egg. I don’t want sympathy.

I want a: Yea! Hey, I know what you mean. I have felt that as well. I get it. I understand.

That’s it. Enough said.

You can’t fix it. There is no fixing. I am investigating all the ways I feel lonely in a crowd,  what it feels like to be amongst the world and also completely not in it at all.

The thing is, I like being alone. I prefer it. I struggle to leave my apartment. I would rather read a book or write than go out and I have been this way since childhood. But much as I am investigating my backbend, I am looking into the intricacies of my aloneness and how it keeps me in my head and what a bloody bad neighborhood that really is.

I just read something by Iyanla Vanzant where she said “Who are you? Is not meant to be a question. It is meant to give pause for reflection. Who are you without whatever you hold on to?”

It is not meant to be a question but rather to give pause.

That’s what I am doing with this particular case, in my detective work, in my investigations. I am giving pause. I am not looking to solve the mystery, per se, but to look without judgement at the areas of my life I have hidden or buried.

I feel lonely often because I can’t hear. It’s a lonely world when you can hear sounds but have no idea what they mean.

So I understand how Jerry died shortly after Kay was hit by the car in front of the church because surely she was the only one who understood his sounds and what they meant.

What I have found in my investigation thus far is this: loneliness is the place we meet our hearts. And we hear our hearts for the first time. The beat slows down, the accelerated beat ceases and there is no panic or sadness or isolation only connection and  a deep knowing that you have waited your whole life for this.

In that moment, The Lonely Ones send their hearts out into the world to love and be loved, and maybe they will get broken, maybe not. But for a few minutes in the life of that heart there is nothing else but other hearts and their is a linking up which if you listen closely to it says the word Finally.


Inspiration, Little Seal, loss, love

The Land of Enchantment.

August 30, 2012
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Today we took a road trip.

Me, Emily and Ronan. Ronan, packed in the back, his small floppy head propped up with stuffed animals and socks, his face reflected in a crooked little mirror, so Emily, his mom, could look into it every so often as she drove in case he had a seizure or stopped breathing.

Tay Sachs has its hold on this little boy. This perfect little boy making cooing noises in the back seat as we marvel at trees and patterns of light and talk about what it means to be happy and how even when you are happy you are still a little bit sad.

Or at least I am.

Our first stop after we left Santa Fe: The Chimayo Sanctuario. It was hot when we stepped out of the car, hotter than it has been back in Santa Fe. Gusts of warm wind blowing my dress around in a way that would normally make me laugh and feel sexy and silly but today I immediately felt tired and I wanted to lie down in the little outdoor church area. Growing up as a Jew, at least until I was 8, I didn’t really know what to call that little area but I knew I wanted to lie my head down on it and rest as the people walked by and snapped pictures or prayed. Some smoked cigarettes which felt somehow unholy given the heat.

Emily had told me as we walked that Chimayo was the meth capital of the world. I watched the smokers in front of us and wondered what meth felt like. I didn’t really want to know but we were in the capital and the heat made me tired and curious.

Emily had said that she loved Chimayo and that they had holy dirt there. She had me at holy dirt.

My hearing has been especially horrendous during this trip. As if there are things here that mustn’t be heard. Things  of loss and heat and dirt and dying babies. Most of the things she tells me during this visit I only half-hear so maybe when she says holy dirt she didn’t say that at all.

But there is holy dirt here indeed!

We entered the church and sat in the back. The art on the walls somehow reminded me of my mother so I kept whispering to Emily My mom would love it here. It was vibrant and colorful, somehow simple in it’s poor beauty, and I knew my mom would love the folk art as Emily did. We traced our fingers over the wood carvings and the blue of the pregnant bellies. There were a few old women up front praying, their mouths repeating the same shapes over and over, and although I know now what they were saying, I knew that they were deep in reverie, deep in connection, somehow sitting on the bench and yet also floating somewhere with a dead relative or baby or Jesus himself. Who knows. They were in a trance but also somehow aware of us as we walked by, enough that they smiled with their eyes and part of their lips without stopping the flow of prayer coming from them. It was like a magic trick. I felt weird to stare but I did, for just a moment. I mean, I went in there to pray in some way I suppose, although I didn’t know it until we walked into the door. I didn’t even know what Chimayo was until we got there. But these women were praying with every ounce of their bodies, like they were born to do this and had waited in a long line of life events that included births and deaths to get here. I was just hoping Ronan wouldn’t suffer and that Emily would be okay. I didn’t even have a real prayer. I just quietly looked over at them and then over to the front of the jaw droppingly gorgeous New Mexican church and sent a wish out to the Jesus statue at the front in whatever language I could muster. I think I put my hands together in prayer like I do when I teach yoga and asked him in sign language Please let Ronan feel nothing. Please let Emily feel something. 

We went to the room where the holy dirt was and it clearly said No Pictures, but, naturally, being me, I took a few. I am like a thief when it comes to inspiration. Whether words or images, if I see it and it touches that place where things are born: I must capture it. I took some photos and then Emily went in and scooped up some holy dirt and put it on Ronan’s sweaty head and his little feet where she had painted his toenails a gold glittery color. I went in and did the same. I also took a little baggy of it and put it in my bag for my sister or anyone else who needed holy dirt. Who knows, maybe I needed it?

We went into the Vigil Shop where they sold popsicles and chile and souvenirs. (They even ship chile! the sign out front boasted.)

We agreed, as we stood under a tree for a moment of relief from the sun, that the land felt different here. I felt much like I do in Ojai, California, where I lead many of my yoga retreats. More connected to the land, more inspired and awake, like there was a current running through me that had been asleep for a while but upon stepping in holy dirt was reignited. Like I became a person again after a longtime of forgetting. Chimayo felt sacred in the way that The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris did in July, when I went to see where Jim Morrison was buried, not because I wanted to but because I was dragged. I went with my childhood babysitter who I had been reunited with after her only son was killed in a drunk driving accident at age 19 last August. It was her greatest wish to see Jim Morrison’s grave. I was annoyed at having to go especially because it was half-raining and I was sick and we got lost, but once we got there it was like nothing else. All the tombs like little houses, each different from the next in the most small beautiful ways. I wanted to lie down on them and see what it felt like, not in morbid way, but rather to be connected to such beauty. Rarely has I seen such beauty associated with death. I felt like that in Chimayo. Far from Paris and Jim Morrison’s grave and Ojai but with the vast knowledge that the holy dirt was the same, that if I tasted it in Paris or California, or if I kneeled down in that little room there today in Chimayo that it would all taste the same. That I would be healed or I wouldn’t but it would be the same. That I wasn’t really so far from beauty, wherever I was in the world at any given moment.

We carried on to Taos and I remembered the first time I had been there. Driving across country with my mother, sister and my best friend at the time. I remember eating tuna fish from a can in the back seat and alternating drivers. I remember the colors in New Mexico being so different from what I knew, both growing up both in New Jersey and California. Today in Taos I had a flood of memories, which is good because I am writing a book, but I kept having to shake them off to be present for Ronan. What if this the the last time I see him? 

Emily says maybe it will be. Maybe not. No expectations is what she is working on. No expectations of what his death will be like, whether or not she should travel to Germany for a week in October (because it could as easily happen while she is teaching or at the store), no expectations of what life will be like after.

As we sat in the chapel Emily told me of the pilgrimage people make to come to Chimayo, the last mile or two on their hands and knees so they arrived bloody to the church for their penance. I was in disbelief that people still did this sort of thing but also in awe at the sheer will and belief in what was possible, in miracles and magic and holy dirt.

There were children’s shoes and booties everywhere, left as offerings, which made me feel sad as I sat there with Ronan because he would never wear shoes to walk or run or to look cool for a girl on a first date.

He would never walk or crawl on his hands and knees to make a pilgrimage.

That’s when I decided that I would make one for him. That actually that is what we were doing today out there in the hot New Mexican sun as we walked on bridges and stood in churches and sat in cars.

That here we were eating holy dirt and driving through The Rio Grande Gorge as we listened to bad music through an iPad. That we sang it out loud badly, and it was all for him. It was all so we could keep giving him these particular pieces of ourselves, these grains of holy dirt to take with him wherever it was he was going.

 

Little Seal, There Are No Words To Describe This

That Which Brings Me To You. By Jen Pastiloff.

October 6, 2011

This is an older piece I wrote almost 3 years ago. Ronan passed away peacefully on Thursday, Feb. 15th at about 3:30 am in Santa Fe. He was surrounded by friends and family. 

October 6, 2011. Which Brings Me To You.

That which brings me to you. Here I am in Santa Fe, sitting on a love seat. Next to me, a sweet baby is propped up on pillows as I write, drool sliding down his chin, eyelids heavy and soft, purring like a cat every so often. A sweet dying baby.

Which brings me to you. It caught my eye, that book on the shelf in the office converted into bedroom, equipped with an air mattress for me on the floor.

Tay Sachs is that which brings me to you.  A dying baby is that which brings me to you, Santa Fe.

Ronan with his mom’s book Poster Child across his chest

It is cold here. Colder than I expected. There is an energetic shift in my bones that I recall from many autumns in New Jersey and New York. As if the person within the person of me comes out and takes over during this time. The person wears my clothes and looks like me. She is a more somber and introspective, melancholy. The light patterns change, the air demands attention and the sky meets you at the front door as you open it for a moment of season. They get season here, whereas L.A. lacks that. I appreciate the season as it demarcates the eras of my life. Without them, my life becomes one long weekend. Such is life in L.A.

The season here, however, is the same it has been since Ronan’s diagnosis.  I can tell the weather in their little adobe house has been winter dark for the last 9 months. December dark. Losing light at 4:30 pm and dead trees kind of dark.

Ronan is peaceful. He doesn’t know what is happening to him. It is hard for me to conceptualize that soon, could be months, could be a year or more, he won’t be anymore.

Right now he sits next to me in a plaid shirt, sitting in what looks like a lotus position, and just is.

I sound like such a yoga teacher when I say that. He just is. He doesn’t fuss except when he is very tired or his head flops over to one side, which it does quite often. His presence is comforting, the knowing he is sitting there next to me, like a fat baby Buddha making little hiccuppy noises every few minutes. He’s here now. In time, a short time, he won’t be. The mathematics of this equation refuses to register in my head. He’s here now and everything feels good on this brown couch. The rise and fall of his chest is a reminder of what is constant in the world, of kisses and baby things and deep full breaths of mountain air after you’ve been trapped in a dirty city way too long. He is so peaceful it is hard to imagine that with his death will come such an uprising, such pain, such a loss, that the word peace will have long left the English vocabulary.

The word ‘peace’ will be come extinct along with ‘fairness’.

It is colder than I imagined here. We went out to breakfast today with Ronan to Mavens. Emily, with her one leg, was one of the most dedicated yogis (and spin class addicts) I had ever met, and right away I knew I would be her friend. It was fast like that. Love at first sight, if you will.

At Mavens, I had a traditional Mexican breakfast of sorts and while Emily went to the restroom I snapped 15 pictures of Ronan with my iPhone. I pretend that if I take a lot of pictures and write about him enough that he won’t ever stop existing. A friend of mine emailed me yesterday and told me to “steal away a little of their pain.”

I wish I could.

Ronan gets startled easily. I crack my knuckles, a nasty non-yogic habit. A dirty disgusting habit I acquired at eight years old  when my dad died, in an effort to be like him. I crack my knuckles and Ronan startles. He may be dying but his intuition is still spot on. He cries when he is tired or hungry or annoyed or I crack my knuckles. I should stop doing it in honor of him.

His face is stunningly beautiful. So much so, that yesterday at a coffee shop in Santa Fe with Emily, I told her that maybe he was an angel. Corny, I know. The face of an angel  stares back at you when you look at this baby. No judgement, no fear, no lines of pain and a life lived, just beauty and quiet contentment.

We went into town while he was napping and looked at the chile shops and turquoise. I bought chile fudge and a watermelon juice and some dragon leggings. They have literal dragons breathing fire on them. It felt apropos.

Nothing makes sense so why shouldn’t I buy dragon tights and a watermelon juice on a freezing day?

I used to think perfect didn’t exist. Not the word, not even the idea of something so without faults that there was no room for growth or improvement. It does exist. He is sitting next to me. Whining just a little, so I know he is here. He won’t improve or grow. This moment is who he will be forever in my mind. He is perfect.

I felt embarrassed after my meltdown at the airport when they wouldn’t let me on my flight. I had thrown a fit. I went into a rage. Now as I sit here on this cold Santa Fe day, as Emily is teaching her university freshman writing class, I realize that I was right to fly into a rage. I get to have this moment on this couch, in this room, all by myself with a perfect purring baby. I was robbed many moments when I was rerouted to Dallas. I want those moments back.

Emily and Rick’s whole life is going to be filled with wanting those moments back. With wishing to never have gotten rerouted. I know I threw into that rage for them. I was indeed trying to take just a little of their pain away.

I sit here with Ronan as he snores lightly. It is a calming sound, one I could listen to forever, knowing Ronan was right here.

Rick comes and takes him to feed him his lunch. Ronan smiles slightly, but it’s there. A smile. He is still here. He can purr and cry and smile every so often. The science fiction like reality of what is happening to him is still far enough way, locked outside in the October New Mexico sky, pummeled to smithereens by his ability to still smile at his daddy.

That which brings me to you is death, yes.

But that which brings me to you is also your life, sweet Ronan. It is your presence in the world, which right now, at this moment, is as spectacular as a million meteor showers as you lie on your back outside and watch the night explode into light.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ronan passed away peacefully on Thursday, Feb. 15th at about 3:30 am in Santa Fe. He was surrounded by friends and family. In March of 2014, Emily and soon-to-be husband Kent Black welcomed Charlotte Mabel Eliot Black into the world.

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Trains and Automobiles, Uncategorized

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

October 5, 2011

Yesterday I entered a parallel universe. I shall call it “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Yea, you know the film.

7 a.m. I wake up.

7:15 am. I have coffee ( with a little lot of almond milk.)

7:30 I repost Emily Rapp’s Little Seal blog on my site so people can read her profound and heartbreaking words.

7:45 I vow not to overpack.

8 am: I overpack.

10 a.m. Arrive at LAX for 10:50 American Airlines flight.

10:15 I am through security with ease. This is going to be a breeze! 90 minute flight to Santa Fe! I have some time to kill so I decide to stand in the world’s longest line to get a bottle of water and maybe a coffee. I don’t really want or need the coffee but I think Hey! I will treat myself since this airport experience has been so awesome so far! No hassle deserves caffeine!

They don’t have any milk I will drink so I go hard-core and drink it black. I can handle this, I think. I’m tough.

10:25 I am at Gate 44 looking for my own Gate 44H. Huh. Where is it? When did LAX get so confusing? Thankfully I have time and everything has been so easy today. (Insert foreboding music here.)

Where the FU*K is Gate 44H? I ask myself while dragging around my ridiculous amount of things and piping hot black coffee. Then I ask it out loud. Nobody knows.

Oh, apparently I have to take a train. Or a bus. Or something that is not my own legs to get there. WTF?!

10:30 I enter an elevator. I get out on wrong floor.

10:32 Panic sets in.

10:35 I find the tram or train or shuttle or bus or whatever the thing is that whisks me to the other side of the airport for gate 44H. What does H stand for? H as in Hell? H for Happy-you’ve- entered -the-Twilight Zone? 

Woman next to me assures me I will make it.  I want to trust her. I really do.

10:39 Walk up to Gate 44H(ell) to a man with crossed arms. I no longer trust woman from tram.

“Hi, I am here for the Santa Fe flight.”

“Closed.” Arms still crossed.

“What do you mean, closed?”

Looking at his watch with the stoniest face mine eyes have ever seen, he says “Gate is closed. It’s ten minutes before.”

I start to cry.

No wait, I shouldn’t lie to my readers.

Have you seen Terms of Endearment?

Have you seen the scene where Shirley Maclaine is in the hospital demanding that they give her daughter, played by Debra Winger, her shots! She was a veral madwoman.

That was me.

I stood there at that gate begging and screaming to the man with crossed arms at the gate, to everyone in the airport. ” Please, somebody help me get on that plane! I must get on that plane! I will be on that plane!”

There were two other women who missed the flight and he wouldn’t budge. The plane was still right there. I could see its wing. I wondered if I could run out and grab onto it.

He could have opened the door. At what point did I completely abandon all my yogi-ness, I am not sure, but indeed it happened. I went postal on crossed-arms man.

“A baby is dying! I need to get there! Open the door! It’s a baby! A baby! Do you have children? What’s your name? Manny? Manny, do you have kids? ”

At this point Mr. Manny puts his hand in my face. ” Ma’am.”

Oh. No. He. Didn’t.

” Call security, I don’t care. Get me on that plane. Just open the door!”

There is only one flight a day to Santa Fe and I am only staying until Friday morning. My time with Ronan is limited. Everyone’s is. I am now a certified madwoman. You would have thought Ronan was my son. Something snapped in me. I became a Mama Bear. (I have no children yet, not of my own anyway, but just so you know, when I do: Dont Eff with me.)

I wanted to claw his eyes out with my bear hands. At some point, the little tiny plane to Santa Fe took off, with what I later find out, seven people missing because the gate closed too damn early and since Mr. Manny was the gatekeeper, we’d all been screwed.

” We can reroute you to Dallas. Three hour layover and then connect you to Santa Fe.”

Apparently I have no choice unless I wanted to leave tomorrow or fly there on my magic yoga mat and neither option was viable so I was going to Dallas. Yay!

11:40 As I get on plane to Dallas, they decide to take my carry- on away because I had too may personal items.

Of course they did.

2pm : I have bloody Mary on plane. It tastes of tears and pepper.

5 pm : I arrive in Dallas and my very expensive leather purse breaks in half so I am carrying it around like a child.

5:15 I get on a train to take me to Gate B like Boy only to get off at Gate D like Dog and then to get back on and go around and around. And around.

5:50 I find a cafe. I decide to treat myself to salmon even though it was $30. Fish in Dallas is expensive! I don’t finish it all but I wrap the very expensive fish to go.

6:45 I decide to walk back to my gate  even though flight is at 8:10 because Lord knows at this point I would miss my flight again and get sent to Little Rock. From there I might never return.

The Following is a Scene from the Actual Film Planes, Trains, & Automobiles:

Neal: What’s the flight situation? 

Del: Simple. There’s no way on earth we’re going to get out of here tonight. We’d have more luck playing pickup sticks with our butt-cheeks than we will getting a flight out of here before daybreak. 

Neal: I guess we’ll find out soon enough. 
Del: Yeah, but by the time the airline cancels this flight, which they will sooner or later, you’d have more of a chance to find a three-legged ballerina than you would a hotel room. 
Neal: Are you saying I could be *stuck* in Wichita? 
Del: I’m saying you *are* stuck in Wichita. 

7:40 I get on plane. If you want to call it that. It was more like a can of beans or a small Datsun. I am not sure I will ever make it to Santa Fe.

I drop my to go box and my fish falls on the ground.

8:50 10 hours later I arrive in Santa Fe looking like an ex-con on crack who hadn’t had a haircut in 5 years.

But I made it! I made it! I am here with Emily and Rick and sweet Ronan. Please stay tuned to the blog for updates. He is pure love.

You know what? He was worth every tear, every second in Dallas, every rude gatekeeper, every broken purse strap, every bump on the plane. Or train. Or automobile.

I’d do it all over again.

I love you Ronan.

There Are No Words To Describe This

Little Seal.

October 4, 2011

The following is a copy of my dear friend Emily Rapp’s blog post. I felt compelled to share it on my blog because I want each and every one of you to read it. Read it and share it. And share it again. I am flying to Santa Fe in an hour to be with them. Stay tuned for my own words on my trip, although they may just be empty and filled with air. 

Look at Ronan's sweet little hands

 

The Weight of Things  (originally published in The Nervous Breakdown)

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

may see and remark, and say Whose? – Walt Whitman, from “A child asks, what is the grass?”

 

I am kneeling in the garage, sorting through a black garbage bag stuffed with Ronan’s outgrown baby clothes. I have promised to give them away to a friend of a friend who knows a friend who is raising a little boy on her own. I want to do this good deed; it makes me feel good to think about trotting off to the post office with a taped up box full of clothes for this woman I’ll never meet, a boy I’ll never know. But as I sort through the onesies printed with dogs and dinosaurs and stars, a green onesie with “Organic Baby” printed over the outline of a leaf; a cream-colored onesie with “I Am a Magical Child” printed in cursive over a picture of a unicorn and a dragon; a shirt that reads “Mr. Happy” and that I remember Ronan wearing on a day when he screamed for 24 hours straight; tie-dyed onesies with matching hats and missing socks and hand-me-down onesies and bear and lion and jungle animals onesies; blue and yellow t-shirts covered in stripes and stars and balloons; a fox sleeper in the orange, white and black colors of my junior high cheerleading outfit (foxes are an underused animal on little boy baby clothes); tiny striped shorts and long pants with more puppies and pandas; jean jackets and Osh Kosh overalls and corduroy jeans and cargo pants (what does a baby do with pockets?); the Pooh t-shirt with matching Pooh pants (yes, there was a poop joke); shirts that say “Doggone Fun” and “Surfer Baby” and “Handsome Like Daddy” and “There’s a Nap in my Future” and button-up shirts and polo shirts in different shades and textures and patterns and prints; a pale yellow cotton one-piece with a collar and a fire engine stitched on with a door that actually opens and closes, real snaps at the neck, even a little fabric flap for the firehouse dog who is wearing a red hat (this last outfit belonged to my brother), I shut the plastic bag and weep. I feel as though I have just peered into the deep pit of a grave. I can picture Ronan in every little outgrown outfit: the skinny-legged, newly born red-faced alien Ronan; the round bowling ball face five- and then six-month Ronan; the one-year-old Ronan with the light already fading, just a bit, from his eyes. The floppy toddler Ronan who is now double the size of these clothes and dying fast from Tay-Sachs, this ridiculous disease with no treatment and no cure. I could not give them away. Not yet. I’m not ready to let those clothes loose to live another life on another baby’s body. I’m not ready to even let them out of the bag, as if they are dangerous and if released might wing away and wound someone. I want them for myself. I want to get in the bag and eat the clothes like some starving animal, some desperate creature. I scold myself: these are just things, nothing more. Just objects, and, even more importantly, items other people need. I still can’t do it.

This is a sentimental moment, I guess. On a sympathy card there might be a bunny, a lovely, red-and-gold painted sunset, the dark silhouette of a bird flying over a beach, a shiny horse running free, a dreamcatcher and a hawk doing something symbolic. I don’t like this moment with the clothes any more than I like sympathy cards or funerals, which so easily and lustily dip into sentimentality. I feel dangerous, churning. This sentimentality masks a deep and terrible rage. Bunnies=Rage. The murderous kind, the bite-your-lip-until-it-bleeds kind, the kind of anger that makes you exhausted and yet howling for more, like a belly that can never be filled. The only appropriate card for this moment, on my knees in the garage, is an empty one, maybe one that screams when you open it – one great, long keen. Some deep-noted dirge; some furious, melancholic song full of discord and drums. The responses I found most satisfying – like a bell ringing out the hour — after Ronan’s diagnosis were these: I am so angry; I am thinking of you with grief and rage; I don’t even know what to say I am so angry; it is so unfair; I am sick to my stomach with sadness and anger; BLOODY UNFAIR!; I LOVE YOU and also, WHAT THE FUCK? RAGE! Sympathy cards are about as useless as candy cigarettes – just give me the real thing. I’d so much rather have an email that says something brutal and terrible and true than a sympathy card made of special-grade parchment and that’s soft to the touch, even the edges gently serrated and decorated with loathsome, uniform birds (there is a standard sympathy card bird; it’s like clip art) flying peacefully into the distance and a super shitty rhyming poem inside. (I do not even dare type them here for fear of expanding their odious reach.) I’d rather have this poem, “Matins,” by Louise Gluck, which is the one that comes to mind while I’m bawling into a plastic bag full of Ronan’s old clothes. I look it up later:

You want to know how I spend my time?

I walk the front lawn, pretending

to be weeding. You ought to know

I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling

clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact

I’m looking for courage, for some evidence

my life will change, though

it takes forever, checking

each clump for the symbolic

leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already

the leaves are turning, always the sick trees

going first, the dying turning

brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform

their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?

As empty now as at the first note.

Or was the point always

to continue without a sign?

Why can’t that poem, that little missile of grief, come printed in a card? I’d happily weep over it or frame it or burn it up in some meaningful ritual fire. When I open the pastel envelopes and see the birds and the sunsets and the birds scrolling into the gentle sunset, I chuck them straight away. I don’t even wait to see who sent them and I don’t care if this is cruel.

Who knows if I would feel so unaccountably devastated about giving away outgrown baby clothes if Ronan were not dying. I know plenty of moms who’ve blubbered as they’ve sorted through baby clothes; even if their child is a teenager, sulking grumpily in his man cave and playing video games and trying to watch porn or smoke pot when his parents aren’t looking. In any case, the baby stage is lost, gone for good.

And yes, they are just clothes, but just as the body carries physical and psychic weight, so do things: a favorite shirt of the beloved, obvious objects like wedding rings, but also random things given and received: a map my best friend made for me ten years ago that shows me the way from the train station to her house; the lyrics of a song written on a napkin that I sang at her wedding outside London, the paper growing damp and gooey in my sweaty palm; my DUKE sweatshirt that I stole from someone’s brother in high school and wore superstitiously for four years during finals week; a creamy flowered blouse that reminds me of France and a steamy night spent necking in a Strasbourg car park with that blouse in a pretty ball on the floor. Mouse-sized menorahs and engraved cigarette holders found in the corners of tenements and on display now under glass at the Tenement Museum in New York City, precious items that were tucked into underwear or satchels or shoes and that crossed continents and made it through the gauntlet line of checkers at Ellis Island (early, less technologically advanced versions of today’s snarky TSA agents) to be found, decades later, abandoned, in a corner. And things mattered more then, too, because people had fewer of them. Things are charged, they act as gateways, and we want to believe they give us access to the person who once inhabited them. We want to believe that they are doors to other worlds, portals to unknown stories that we intuit even if we don’t know them for certain or for sure. I have a cheap dress – blue polyester with red and white piping on the bottom and the sleeves – that puts me chain smoking in my office in Geneva on a blazing hot spring morning, the view across the garden thick with pink blossoms. My Doc Marten boots were my Ireland boots, trekking boots; I literally wore them out, the back soles were finished. When my mom was given her mother’s old cameo necklace from her cousin when we visited her farmhouse in Kansas on one of our summer cross country trips, she said “Oh,” almost mutely, amazed, her eyes filling as she turned the necklace over in her hands like a piece of delicate lace. I saw her seeing it on her mother’s throat, her mother who had been dead for 40 years and had been given this piece of jewelry, now falling apart, by an old boyfriend that was not my mother’s father, who was also dead. I restrung the necklace and wore it at my wedding to Rick. Things matter, things endure when people and relationships do not. Things: simply lasting, then/failing to last: water, a blue heron’s/eye, and the light passing/between them: into light all things/must fall, glad at last to have fallen. (from “Things,” by Jane Kenyon).

In Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman’s stunning, playful, and at times devastating book, he imagines all sorts of after-death scenarios: comical, heart-wrenching, unfair, unbelievable, wonderful. Here’s a snippet from Graveyard of the Gods, one of my favorites:

You begin to realize that the gift of immortality applies to things we created, as well. The afterlife is full of cell phones, mugs, porcelain knickknacks, business cards, candlesticks, dartboards. Things that were destroyed – cannibalized naval ships, retired computers, demolished cabinetry – all return in full form to enjoy and furnish the hereafter. Contrary to the admonition that we cannot take it with us, anything we create becomes part of our afterlife. If it was created, it survives.

Just after I turned fourteen, when we were moving from Wyoming to Nebraska, before my parents found a house to buy we stayed in rented rooms at the top of an old museum attached to Bethphage Mission, a residential home for mentally retarded adults, although I believe they were in the process of changingretarded to delayed. The museum had clearly not been visited in years, maybe decades, because although it was of historical interest, I can’t imagine anyone pulling first off the interstate and then off the dirt road to learn about the history of nursing care when this facility had been a straight-up mental asylum and not an assisted living home. And if they did, they’d be out of luck, because the museum was apparently open for exactly one hour each week, when the door was simply propped open with an old book. There was no entrance fee and anyone could have taken off with what was inside: mannequins with 1960s beehives modeling nurse’s outfits from the 1940s that glittered with dust when the hazy fall light fell through the dirty windows; cobwebs stretched across pointy chests as if they were part of the fabric pattern or bras worn on the outside of blouses. Old shoes – once-white clodhopper nursing shoes, one pair of fancy lace-up boots, a pair of square-toed, ratty heels – were piled in a corner. Carefully I roamed through those empty rooms, walking slowly through the bones of those other stories, scaling some falling-apart ladder of time. I felt I should hush my footsteps although I was alone, as if I were disturbing the things, which might have a life of their own. The rooms felt populated. A few windows were open and the air was typical of autumn in the Midwest – crisp and expectant, things turning and falling and changing – but no season was going to penetrate these unvisited and neglected rooms. You had to stick your nose out the window like a dog riding in a car to get a whiff. My breath practically echoed. I walked in the museum to scare myself, as a distraction from other concerns. “What are you DOING?” I’d hear my mom call from the top of the stairs leading up to our “residence.” I was fourteen; I ignored her. “We’re having beef stroganoff for dinner,” she called into the silence. “You’ve got ten minutes,” she said, and I heard the door click shut.

There were books and made-up beds, and a “model” of a room where “treatments” had been administered. An old wooden cabinet marked with a sign that read “surgical tools,” had apparently been plundered. The creepiness of the museum almost made it impossible for me to sleep above it; I was certain that all those things down there were alive. Those mannequins moved I told my dad. At night they walk around and do stuff! The feet of one of them moved an entire inch! I measured! The other story was that someone was outside in the prairie, a stolen scalpel in one hand, preparing to run up the stairs and plunge it into our unsuspecting hearts, one by one. Who would ever find us in the middle of nowhere Nebraska at the top of a museum that was NEVER OPEN? We never saw a single resident, as the museum faced the street and the “campus” was on the other side of the building. This was the end; I just knew it. We were toast. My middle-of-the night histrionics were draining my parents’ energy and robbing them of sleep. “You’re not a child!” my dad said, exasperated, all other logic having failed to convince me that we weren’t about to meet some inevitable and gruesome end. “Don’t let your imagination run away with you!” But run off it did, and I went with it. The need to find a house gained greater urgency.

I also got my period for the first time in the cold, institutional-feeling bathroom attached to our “rooms” (two twin beds in three plain, identical-looking rooms); and so I’d walk around, fingering the outfits on the mannequins, smelling the cold dust, slowly eating peanut M and Ms from a one pound bag, feeling the inside of my body buck and kick in a way that was painful but not wholly unfamiliar. I was a woman now, apparently, for whatever that was worth. In one dim corner of the museum, on a slightly raised stage stood an old-school crib with rockers on the bottom and a faded, ruffled top. Displayed on nearby tables were yellowed baptismal gowns, tissue-paper-thin, with matching hats, puffy like the tops of muffins, that were worn by some baby long ago, a baby who had lived and died probably hundreds of years before I walked by munching chocolate and bleeding. I sat in the empty, claw-footed bathtub and wrote mournful letters to my friends in Wyoming and yelled at my parents through the door. Then I got mono and slept in the car while my parents shuffled in and out of potential houses. Much to everyone’s relief, I no longer wanted to move or haunt what I was sure were those haunted rooms full of haunted things. Things with life, things with stories, things that breathed in their own lifeless yet very real way.

Things, things, things. I am a collector of things. I have a storage room full of books, a box full of artificial legs, old cotton cloth Esprit bags full of scattered photos from junior high, me sitting in clumps of girls at pizza parties and sleepovers, sticking out my chest in an effort to look busty and gregarious. (I was flat-chested and miserable). At least ten jewelry boxes stuffed with cheap and ruined jewelry, rhinestones and crystals and rusty charms shaped like tigers and elephants. Boxes of letters and three boxes of all the cards I got as a kid when I was in the hospital. A box of prom dresses and bridesmaids dresses, more boxes full of journals and math workbooks and yearbooks and notes that I passed and that were passed to me in junior high and high school. Someday, when my parents move out of their house and clean out their basement for good, I’ll have to reckon with my pack-rattish self. But not yet.

Since Ronan’s diagnosis six months ago I have begun adorning myself: a ring for every finger, an engagement ring that was my husband’s grandmother’s; a wedding ring from the same year – 1932 – that Rick and I found in a pawn shop in Los Angeles and that fit me perfectly – “a princess fit!” the saleslady cried gleefully, and the Cinderella sound of that pleased me; the claddagh ring I bought the day I arrived in Dublin in 1994 for five Irish pounds, pre-Euro; the ring my mother gave me for college graduation, interlocking loops of Celtic knots; a ring that says joy love hope recently purchased at an airport shop in Phoenix, hoping the words would rub off the silver and into my skin; a ring that’s a long sheath of silver with slits where the skin shows through; a dragon ring for my thumb. Around my neck a locket with Ronan’s hair and a picture of his face tucked inside, his birth date 3/24/10 engraved on the back below his cursive name, a gift from my mother for Mother’s Day. A silk chord swinging with my box of holy dirt, my Buddha, my Santa Nino charm from Chimayo, New Mexico, my power animal gorilla charm that a friend retrieved with a bobby pin when it fell off its chain and down a drain in Palm Springs. I want to close things around my wrists, shackle my hands. I need to feel weighted, close to earth, anchored. I don’t want to want to leave it.

Things matter, things count. I took the last/dusty piece of china/out of the barrel./It was your gravy boat/with a hard, brown/drop of gravy still/on the porcelain lip./I grieved for you then/as I never had before. “What Came to Me,” Jane Kenyon

In Spain, at a two-week writing residency in June, my leg develops an annoying squeak. I take off the piece that covers the knee, clean it of dust and dirt, put it back again, it still squeaks. I leave it off although it rips up the covering hose and any long pants I might wear. It looks like a cat has been at me, perhaps the two that fight horribly every night outside my window after dinner, their battle meows like human screams. I let the hose and pants rip; I’m tired of making noise when I walk through the silent farmhouse rooms with their black and white checkered floors that smell of lemons and foreign bleach. When I look down at my knees there’s a big sticker on the end of the metal knee that warns DO NOT TAMPER WITH. The knee cover seems to weigh ¼ of an empty coffee mug if my hands are accurate scales. Franz Kafka, skinny insomniac, on August 31, 1920, a Tuesday, went to a doctor in Prague and wrote “neither he nor the scales find me improved.” We weigh and tweak and size up. Decision-making language.

The Swiss sweep the homes of their citizens each year and count bullets to be sure the weapons haven’t been fired by any members of the peaceful, civilian army; the neutral moderators of the neutral army take out the neutral bullets and hold the neutral bits of steel in their hands. In 1994 a piece of a Viking ship was found near my apartment building in Dublin, which meant one less crane would be obscuring the skyline as the archeologists arrived with their books and enthusiasm, their special shovels and precision tools. There’s a pool of dark and tepid water in a wet well in Dublin castle that has been sitting there since A.D. was in the single digits. In one legendary story, Mary Shelley was given Byron’s dehydrated heart – by then a handful of powdery dust – in an envelope. In Victorian times you didn’t send a letter to your beloved through the post, you sent a lock of your snipped hair, like a pressed flower or a leaf plucked from a tree. The world of things seems to make people accessible; it’s what hierophany is all about, stones and other natural objects as portals to another world, another life. For a full year after my divorce I drove around with my engagement ring freed from my finger and rattling around in the glove compartment of my car before I felt ready to pawn it with a friend at my side at a seedy, sprawling shop in South Austin that I’d driven by three times in the previous six months. Once I actually managed to enter the parking lot and park for a minute before driving away. The ring was small and light and made me enough money to get my first small tattoo, a tiny, colorful flower carved in a place I hoped my mother would never see it.

Things. We adorn, we bedeck, we festoon. We search and select gifts for our beloved. I saw this and thought of you. A ring from Paris, a scarf from Wisconsin, a hand-knit sweater with your name on a tag stitched inside, a tattoo sleeve stretching from shoulder to wrist. A clutch of coins from countries you’ve visited, currency that’s useless in your own country that you can chuck into a big plastic bin for charity in airports in Madrid, London, Berlin. Marks, shekels, pounds, euros, francs, pence, lire, Canadian dollars.

When I see a mother walking on the arroyo path near my home in Santa Fe with her baby in the front pack I think she’s what, maybe eleven pounds? The premature nine-month-old twin girl in Ronan’s swimming class weighs seven pounds. The woman who sat next to me during a turbulent plane ride in the 90s, back when flying absolutely terrified me, said, “It’s virtually impossible for these planes to fall out of the sky. They weigh too much to fall.” (Too big to fail!) An artificial leg weighs between ten and fifteen pounds; an artificial foot weights about four or five; the “model” legs (like model homes) that are lined up along the walls of a prosthetist’s office are often lighter, the ones that hang from straps and pulleys in the back rooms, the ones for real people, are the weight they should be and of course these weights range – they are as individual as the people who wear them. When I was 18 I weighed 95 pounds; when I was breastfeeding Ronan I weighed 110 pounds; in Geneva I weighed 132 pounds; when I was married the first time (and the second time) I weighed 118 pounds. Now I weigh 120 pounds. Ronan weighed 6.5 pounds when he was born, and doubled his weight within the first three weeks of life. Now he weighs almost 24 pounds. An earthquake kit has water bottles, a transistor radio, a bright orange vest, energy bars, and weighs about 6 or 7 pounds. A baby tooth is practically weightless. When bald 6.5 pound Ronan was weighed next to a 12 (!) pound baby with a full head of hair at Cedars-Sinai in his first 24 hours of life he looked miniscule, a little terrified worm unearthed from the ground. When my St. Bernard hit 85 pounds the vet put him on a diet. A bag of outgrown baby clothes weighs 5.4 pounds. Grief weighs nothing but you still have to drag it around.

 

Emily and I last May

EMILY RAPP is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir. A former Fulbright scholar, she was educated at Harvard University, Saint Olaf College, Trinity College-Dublin, and the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She has received awards and recognition for her work from the Atlantic Monthly, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation, the Jentel Arts Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Valparaiso Foundation. She was the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University and has received a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Sun, The Bark, The Texas Observer, Body & Soul, Good Housekeeping, and many other publications. She has taught writing in the MFA program at Antioch University-Los Angeles, where she was a Core Faculty member, UCLA Extension, the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Program, the Taos Writers’ Workshop, and the Gotham Writers’ Workshops. She is currently professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is currently at work on a novel and a new memoir,Dear Dr. Frankenstein, which chronicles her life with her infant son, who is dying of Tay-Sachs disease. Excerpts from the book can be found at http://ourlittleseal.wordpress.com and you can visit her at www.emilyrapp.com.