On the first day of 2020, I was sitting in my sunroom,
talking on the phone with my sister, when I looked out the window and saw a red
fox walking across my patio. He was a
bold, little creature. He jumped up onto the stone wall, sat down, and just looked at me, his eyes shining
bright with intelligence. We held each other’s gaze for several moments. He
never showed the slightest inclination to run, he merely cocked his head when
he heard me exclaim to my sister that a fox had just come calling. He just kept
staring at me as if he wanted me to consider something. My sister also thought
I should consider that a fox coming to visit on the first day of new year had
to be some kind of omen.
As soon as I hung up, I decided to see what kind of omen had settled on my doorstep on this new year’s day. One thing I read said that Native Americans believe the fox is considered the single best guide to lead someone down a destined path. Foxes reveal themselves during times of great and unpredictable change, and they implore you to remain flexible with whatever comes next. Many sites commented on the fox’s stealthy nature. The fox has a reputation for being a trickster, but its stealth also serves the fox by helping it to optimize it’s survival and safety.
Reading all this I began to ponder if the message fox brought had something to do with our big move to the East Coast. Lately, I had been having thoughts that bringing the family closer together had been a necessary first step, but that the path ahead was still not settled. The challenges required to reunite the family were not just physical, but emotional as well. Perhaps the fox was encouraging me to be more clever and adaptable in finding a place of greater comfort and balance for all of us.
The fox’s appearance also got me thinking more about my new
year’s resolutions. I had made two. The first was that after a long hiatus from
writing (as I dealt with all the many aspects of this relocation) I had finally
gotten back to work on Ahote’s Path. I’m really happy with the progress
I have made so far. I made a resolution that 2020 should be the year the book
is finished and published.
My second resolution is harder to put into words, but I will try. Often in my meditations, I will reflect upon how very small we are as humans. What we know is so very little compared to what is known by the universal mind; and the time we have to learn is also so small when compared to the span of all time. So it stands to reason that what I know about myself and my family is also only a small portion of what is knowable. This year I want to make myself look deeper, learn more. I want to try and discover a greater truth of who we are and what it is we really mean to each other. I want to accept what is true, not judge it. It’s not a simple task, but I will say that so far I have found that it has helped me to be kinder to myself and to them, to have greater empathy, and to see the early manifestations of a more loving, expansive connection.
As you look at the family pictures here from the end of
2019, you will see so many happy family moments. You have likely deduced by now
that there have also been some difficult moments. I think whenever you try to
build a stronger foundation, you can’t help but uncover the disruptive cracks
that threaten the entire structure. But each challenge that arises always
brings me back to a most basic understanding. I love this family with all my
heart. I would and have done everything I know to bring greater love, happiness
and healing to us all. That is the path that I hope fox will help me navigate
even better in 2020. Wish me luck, and I will wish the same for all of you, a
year ahead filled with truth, love, beauty, harmony, healing and happiness for
each and every one of you.
I am writing this blog from my home office. I’ve never worked in here before. For the five months that David, Natalie and Avery lived with us, I handed this space over to them so they could have a dedicated space to work in. But in the final days of August, David, Natalie and Avery were at last able to move into their new home. August was a tough slog for all of us for many reasons. There were too many house projects going on both here and at the kid’s new house, too many fires constantly needing to be put out. The more discombobulating things got, the more accidents and injuries started cropping up; the worst being a concussion for Mark, and a torn meniscus for me. For the kids, the injuries were more psychological than physical. Five months without a home to call their own had left them emotionally and spiritually drained. Avery was the only one of the five of us who was completely happy and excited by the promise of each new day.
When moving day happened, it did so unexpectedly. A project to insulate the attic at our house was so disruptive and smelled so noxious, that my kids decided to pack up the baby and the cats and just live with whatever chaos was happening at their house. Literally, one day I was running a household for a family of five, and the next the house was silent. My knee, which had been getting worse for the past month, finally became so painful that I wasn’t able to be much help with the move. For months I had been in constant motion, often feeling like there was never enough time to get everything done, and then in the blink of an eye the whole pattern changed.
I was in so much pain that I couldn’t play rumpus games with Avery anymore, it hurt too much to get down on my knees or to get up off the ground. It also became much harder to carry him around. It finally got bad enough I had to go to the orthopedist, get an MRI, and ultimately have surgery. In the days before the surgery, as I continued hobbling around as best I could, I was reminded of an experience, now 21 years in the past, when I’d torn a ligament in my knee. It was that injury that ultimately led me to the discovery of Reiki, which changed my life, my relationships, and my entire worldview profoundly. Likewise, I was reminded of the time I fractured my wrist in Sedona. I had fallen on some black ice when I was out hiking. I was on my own a lot during that time, so I needed to figure out how to fend for myself without the use of my right hand. The experience ended up being a very instructive lesson in mindfulness and patience, again changing the way I looked and related to everything. Needless to say, my perspective on injuries has changed a lot over the years, and I no longer look at them as just bad luck. A knock on the head, and an injured knee told me that Mark and I needed to slow down and appreciate what we’d set in motion. A year had passed since we’d resolved to bring our family closer together so we could build stronger family ties. But it wasn’t until we were both injured that I realized how our world view had been whittled down to nothing more than the details of surviving each day. It was time to pause, take stock, and seek a wider perspective.
If you had asked me how things were going before life declared a time out, I would have told you that I was having doubts. I felt very uncertain that all we’d set in motion would ultimately bring us greater happiness.When I finally did look more deeply inward, I found that the opposite was true. I saw things that left me feeling encouraged, grateful, and unexpectedly happy. I wondered at the gap between those two perspectives, and ultimately, that is what this blog is about. By writing it all down, I’m hoping I’ll be able to more fully appreciate the things that lifted my heart as summer gave way to fall.
Jordan turned two at the beginning of August, and there was a lot of partying going on in Philadelphia that weekend. Julie’s family, the Birons, were celebrating not only Jordan’s birthday, but also Matty’s (Julie’s younger brother) who was turning 30. Jordan and Avery had lots of opportunities to charm the family, learn the happy birthday song, and to eat cake, but most importantly, they had a lot of time to play together. It was a great weekend, filled with family, dogs, eating, and fun. Both boys still talk about it, and they still talk a lot about each other. It was our first clear evidence that the boys really knew and liked one another.
Getting to know Jordan better, and strengthening our ties to Jeremy and Julie were big factors in our decision to move, but it turns out that in the process of strengthening that bond, we’ve had a lot of lovely experiences with the Biron family as well. We shared Passover together, we had everyone out for a weekend at our new house in June, We celebrated Jordan and Matty’s birthdays in early August. Then, in late August, we co-grandparented with the Birons at their house on the Jersey shore, while Jer and Julie went on an incredible mediterannean vacation. Mark and I have always liked the Birons. Julie’s mom, Janice, and I have developed a friendship over the years that feels very easy and companionable. This move has somehow shifted that friendship to something more. There is this growing sense that we are no longer two separate families. We’re just family.
I am really grateful for all the opportunities I am getting to spend with Jordan. Each time I see him, I discover things that are special, funny, and sweet about my little grandson. I treasure these moments. I love the way he points his little finger and says “dat is Nana,” and then he points down the line, “dat is Grandpao, dat is Avery, dat is Uncle David, dat is Uncle Natalie, dat is Auntie Jamie.” Sometimes Jamie is Uncle Jamie, it depends on his mood. As soon as he has us all labeled, his face lights up in a big smile, and then the fun begins. I love how he is always singing. I love his passion for books. He is always impressing me with his strong vocabulary and math skills. His love of looking good and accessorizing always makes me laugh. I love that even though he’s a city boy at heart, he can appreciate the woods for my sake. His gentle, sensitive spirit has deeply touched my heart. All during his first year of life, every time I saw him, he was between one illness and another. It wasn’t until we moved here that I finally was able to see him at his best. Now I know him well enough to be able to love him not just because he’s my grandson but for the delightful, little person he is.
This move helped us to close the distance between all our children and grandchildren, but by far the biggest impact for us was going from an hour ride up the mountain to see David, Natalie and Avery in Flagstaff, to living in the same town just two miles apart. I don’t want to rush past those five months we spent living together though. They were hard, but having a chance to live day to day with Avery was a priceless gift. I have known this little boy since he drew his first breath. I’ve been around to see every milestone, but living together under one roof allowed a closeness that I haven’t experienced since my own children were little. He has brought so much joy to every single day. He makes us all laugh, and he touches our hearts with his ever evolving viewpoint of the world.
I can’t possibly tell you all the sweet Avery stories that I’ve accumulated over the past months, but I will tell you my favorite one. It is his go-to story whenever he wants to really impress someone with his experience of life. I will call this story “Dead Bird.” Back in early August, Avery and Mark came in from an outing, and Avery kept looking at me with big, serious eyes saying something that sounded like “diaper.” I could tell by the way he was looking at me that I didn’t have the word right, this was a much more serious topic. “What is he saying?” I asked Mark, and my husband told me about the dead bird they had just found on the deck. I asked him what he’d done with it, only to discover that it was still lying right where it had fallen. It was Avery’s first encounter with death and I figured it was important to help him process the fragility and preciousness of life. I took his hand in mine, and a paper towel in the other, and we went out so he could show me where the bird was. It was clear the bird had broken its neck flying into the window. I knelt down and gently scooped it’s body up in the paper towel, and then, hand in hand, Avery and I walked to where the forest edged our property. A memory came to my mind of a funeral we had once had for my brother Dan’s pet frog. Dan had been driving cross country on his way from med school out east to his residency in Arizona. He’d stopped along the way to visit us in our new home in Clearlake, Texas. The Texas heat had proven to be too much for his frog, and the little amphibian expired shortly before Dan pulled up in our drive. At Dan’s urging, and with a two year old Jeremy in tow, we created a lovely ceremony out in our backyard. I decided to do the same now for this little bird. I started to sing as we walked. It was nothing half so operatic as what I’d sung for Dan’s frog. This time I made up the words as I went, using a melody I’d purloined from one of Avery’s favorite songs. After the song, I said some kind words about how the bird had helped keep our forest vibrant and healthy. Then, Avery and I put the little creature into the woods, away from where Lucy might find him. I concluded the service by saying to Avery, “and now that little bird will become one with all the forest.” We walked back to the house hand in hand. Clearly, the experience made an impression on him, because he kept saying “dead bird” wanting me to tell him the story again and again of how we’d paid our respects to this little creature. It is both touching and funny to see how he now tells the story to others. He’ll fix his eyes intently on whoever it is he’d like to suitably impress and say “dead bird”. Then he’ll begin to babble, an impression of what I must sound like to him when I tell the story, but at the end he always clearly says “and then” and somewhere in that stream I can even make out the word “forest” as he brings the story to a close. So, Dan, thank you for the now 32 year old inspiration. Zeke, the frog’s legacy lives on!
Not long after David, Natalie and Avery moved out, Natalie’s brother, Nate, and her father, Ron, came to visit. They were en route to LA, returning for good from the life they’d been living in Israel, determined to make a better life for themselves and Nate’s fiance, Valerie, in California. Natalie’s Aunt Sandy also came down from upstate New York to welcome the family back to the States. Aunt Sandy and I have seen a lot of one another over the years because of the close relationship Sandy has maintained with Natalie. She spends every Thanksgiving with us, and whenever she comes to visit the kids, I always enjoy her company. Much like what happened with Janice, the friendship between Sandy and I has taken on new depth since the move, and interestingly enough, it was my bum knee that caused us to both peer a little more closely at what it was we felt for one another.
I found myself really enjoying Natalie’s family during their visit. We shared several meals together. We ate rather too well, because Nate and Ron are both excellent cooks. Nate made one wonderful dinner for us, specifically to thank us for our help with Valerie’s visa process. It was really nice to see Nate after so many years, to see how well he was doing, and how much thought he’d put into building a new life for himself, his soon to be wife, and his dad. The only downside to the visit was that my knee, by this point, was really slowing me down. Towards the end of their visit, Mark had to leave to teach in NYC. It was his first teaching gig since his concussion, and he needed a lot of sleep to just get through each day, so he spent the night before in NYC with Jamie. Of course it was that night that things went shockingly south with my knee. As I started to climb into bed, I pivoted just the wrong way. I felt a pop in my knee and a searing pain shot through me. When I finally caught my breath and was able to assess the damage, I discovered that I couldn’t put weight on that leg at all. Though I hated to do it, I had no choice but to call David and Natalie, who both ran over to see what could be done. David found an office chair on wheels, and I was able to maneuver in it pretty well, but getting over thresholds required that I get out and stand on one leg to lift the chair over. The same was true in the bathroom. I was unsteady enough that we weren’t certain I could safely navigate out of and back into something that had the potential to roll out from under me. We concluded that someone would have to stay the night with me. David looked at me slightly panicked. He wasn’t ready for that stage of life where he had to help his old mom to the bathroom, and frankly, neither was I. Natalie was slightly less squeamish at the prospect, but she was also torn because Avery would be confused in the morning not to find her there. It was then that Natalie had the idea to ask Aunt Sandy. It felt a little weird to ask her, but she very graciously agreed.
Sandy and I hadn’t ever been in a position before where one of us needed to rely on the other, but now that we were, I found it changed something between us. I remember how she very sweetly tucked me into bed, organized my covers just so, making sure they wouldn’t put too much weight on my leg. Then she peered deeply into my eyes and told me to wake her for anything. As I stared back into her gaze, I saw the kindness and the deepening connection there so clearly. It had been a distressing evening, but it was also heartwarming to know that she had put herself out there for my sake and truly wanted to help me.
The last aspect of appreciation I’m going to share with you is about the many ways I am feeling grateful for the improvements in Jamie’s life. Over this past summer, Jamie’s health issues continued to worsen. Adding to all that stress was even more anxiety about what was to come next for her now that she’d graduated from her master’s degree program. She had been looking for paid work, while also submitting her musical work to all kinds of grants and festivals ever since January, and things were not going well. But no matter how hard things got for my daughter, no matter how ill or uncertain she felt, she kept her goals in sight. She kept building strong connections in the industry by helping out on many different events happening in the NYC theater world. She also kept working with her thesis partner, Eric, to mount an industry read of their musical, “The Valley.” One of the events Jamie volunteered for turned out to be life changing. She offered to help out at the annual Lilly Awards. The organization’s mission is focused entirely on supporting and advocating for women who work at all levels of theatrical production, with the stated goal of promoting gender parity. One of the speakers that night was Georgia Stitt, and Jamie was deeply moved by what Georgia had to say. Georgia is a highly accomplished American composer and lyricist, arranger, conductor, and musical director. She is also the founder of MAESTRA, an organization which is committed to improving the gender disparity in the musical theater world. Their membership includes people who are female-identifying, non-binary, and gender non-conforming. They have, without a doubt, the most impressive directory of qualified women in the industry. The directory serves to help people find talented women for their productions, and is a powerful tool to help close the gender gap. Maestra also runs workshops and events that help engender a real sense of community among its members.
As Jamie listened to Georgia speak, she felt a fire ignite in her. Georgia’s words, and the purpose of MAESTRA truly spoke to Jamie’s soul. She approached Georgia that evening at the after party and volunteered to help. One thing led to another. Before long she was writing a well received blog for MAESTRA, featuring some of the very accomplished women in MAESTRA’s directory. She made herself useful in other ways as well, and by the time September rolled around, Georgia offered Jamie a part time job as an administrative assistant. It was a perfect situation for Jamie, allowing her some much needed extra income, while also allowing her time to keep working on furthering her music theater career. She has put that time to good use. Jamie and Eric’s industry read of “The Valley” went extraordinarily well. Mark and I were there, despite the concussion and the need for crutches. We loved every minute of the show, but more importantly, a lot of other people did too. Exciting next steps are beginning to take shape for “The Valley.”
My girl has been through some pretty dark times, but through it all she has never stopped trying to make her dreams come true. That perseverance is starting to manifest some very real, positive change in her life. Now her days are filled with a strong sense of purpose, and with people who are all doing exciting things in the world of musical theater. When I talk to her, I can hear the rising sense of happiness and confidence in her voice. I couldn’t be prouder of her bravery and determination. Broadway is not for the faint of heart. It has also traditionally not been very welcoming to women and other minorities. But there is definitely a current of change in the air, not just on Broadway, but everywhere we look. People like Georgia and Jamie are finding each other and joining forces to affect what change they can. It excites me to see all this awakening, all this courage, all this desire to do better by each other. I am so grateful to be alive to see it all happening, and to see my daughter pouring her heart and soul into projects she is passionate about. As she does so, it is clear she is catching a glimpse of her own true worth.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. We’ve made a lot of changes this year, and underlying it all was the assumption that these changes would ultimately bring about greater happiness. But the plain, bald truth is, change is hard. For a lot of the past few months the best word I can choose to describe what I’ve been feeling is unmoored. I watched the landscape out the windows of my new home wake from winter into an abundant, flowery, spring, which in turn unfurled into a lush green summer. The song birds woke me each morning singing with such joy and abandon, and I was keenly aware that my heart was not singing with them. I was not a part of it all because I was still looking around for wide open vistas and towering red rocks. I understood that if I wanted to be happy, I was going to have to find my bearings, and anchor myself to the energies that now surrounded me. Somehow, I had to convince my heart to let the desert go, but the how of it was eluding me.
Towards the end of May, I returned to Flagstaff, accompanying Mark to one of the Native American leadership initiatives that he has been teaching with Professor Manley Begay at NAU over the past few years. My apologies to all my Sedona friends. As much as I had wanted to stop in Sedona to say hello, our schedule was too tightly packed We were able to fly from the east coast to Dallas and then Dallas to Flagstaff, completely by-passing the long drive up the mountain from Phoenix to the high country that would have taken us right by Sedona. Arriving at the Flagstaff airport was almost surreal. As we watched all the familiar landmarks of Flagstaff appear below us, it became quite clear that this quiet mountain town was on the map in a way it never had been in all the years we’d lived in Northern Arizona.
We stayed at the Drury Inn, along with many of the participants of the leadership program. There were managers and leaders from tribes across the country, and from as far north as Canada, and as far south as Mexico. Many of them were faces we’d seen before, inspired enough from their first session to want more. I’ve attended and photographed every session Mark and Manley have taught, but there was something about the way Native American and Western thought came together in this session that was electrifying. I sensed that every person there felt how Mark and Manley were creating a coherent alignment, stoking fires, satisfying the desire of everyone there to learn how to affect positive change and growth within each of their communities.
I will confess, I had been nervous to return to Flagstaff. I’d been worried about whether I’d made the right choice, moving away from a place that I’d had such a strong connection to. I worried that having left, I would now find that connection was no longer there, or that all that I’d learned from my years in the desert would not survive a return to a major metropolitan area. But as I sat in my hotel room and looked out the window at the San Francisco peaks, I came to see there was still an energy to this place that my body and spirit immediately responded to. It had been a cold spring in Northern Arizona, and the mountain was still snow capped, the peaks buried deep in heavy cloud cover. I closed my eyes and began to meditate, feeling the energy of this sacred mountain reverberate all around and through me. I began to sense that the mountain had an answer here for me. The mountain shared with me its strength, it’s power to endure, it’s ability to draw energies to itself, and it offered me the reminder that I also had these same strengths. Then, I very much felt like the mountain gave me it’s blessing to follow this new path. I was being offered the chance to take some part of it with me so I could move forward with one of my deepest desires; to bring my children and grandchildren closer together, and for Mark and I to be there to enjoy it.
On the way home, Mark and I got to stop in Denver for a much needed trip to see my family there. One of the hardest things about leaving the west was losing that easy proximity I had to family in Colorado, California, to my brother, Dan, who had recently moved to Tucson, and even to my cousin and her family in Seattle. I had prioritized children and grandchildren over parents, siblings, and cousins by making this move. I was giving up road trips for plane rides, but I feel pretty sure my family understood my choice. I was welcomed back to Denver with the same open, loving embrace as always.
With what felt like an accepting nod from both the mountain and my family, I came home and found that I was more curious to get to know my new environment. I was starting to ask the same question in Connecticut that I had asked so many years ago along the red rock trails of Sedona. It was the question that had ultimately given birth to Cha’risa’s Gift. Who had walked here before me? I may not have had dramatic mountains clearly marking the direction north, there might be more days where the sky was cloudy and I never saw the sun, but the question anchored me.
Right around this time, another important shift began to happen. The settling in process was slowly starting to ease, making more energy available for the kind of special family moments we’d envisioned when we’d set this course, nearly nine months ago. Shortly after our return from Flagstaff and Denver, we made a quick trip into NYC to see a show Jamie had produced at 54 Below of new works, which included selections from the musical she had written with Eric Fegan. The entire show was very successful, but needless to say, my favorite part was the selections from their show, The Valley. Even at the late hour of 11:30 pm there was a good sized, enthusiastic crowd. The cast was so energized and talented that I had no trouble at all staying up way past my bedtime. Jamie and Eric are currently working on producing a full staged reading of their musical in September, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the show in its entirety. Launching a show is a very long, drawn out labor of love, but I really think when it’s finally birthed, this baby is going to be beautiful!
Not long after that, the summer solstice rolled around and I decided to create a Strawberry Moon/Summer Solstice ritual for David, Natalie and Mark, where I shared what the Mountain had revealed to me. I think the kids also were in need of the assurance that message provided. Their renovation project is on-going and they are still living with us, the majority of their belongings still in boxes. The renovation has been frustrating at many levels,coming in way over- budget and behind schedule. Natalie told me the mountain’s message felt especially tailored for her. The thought of Mount Humphries sending her strength and the power to endure brought bittersweet tears to her eyes. While we’re all anxious to see the renovation project come to an end, we will miss the kids when they go. And as for little Avery, Mark and I have grown so attached, and he to us, that it will be a wrench to see him move even two miles away. But, it is clearly time for David, Natalie and Avery to finally have their own chance to settle in and put down roots. Time for all of us to make one last change to make this family vision complete.
During the last weekend in June we had a big family get together with Jer, Julie, Jordan, Julie’s parents, her older brother and his two twin boys, and the canine brigade, Bowser and Moose. It was a wonderful, noisy, crazy weekend where we ate a lot, got to see our two toddler grandsons really talking and playing with one another, and spent a lot of time splashing in our pool, which has turned out to be such an incredible garden oasis. It was our first real test of how many people this house can comfortably hold. Our home lived up to all our hopes and expectations. It is a wonderful gathering place.
Then, just one week after that big family hoo hah, I got to have a very special experience with Jeremy. It was his birthday present to me, a day long workshop in northern New Jersey where we could both experience an alternative healing modality called Holotropic Breathwork. I think we were both a little nervous, but I’m so glad I took that leap of faith with him.It turned out to be an important step on my journey to make peace with leaving Sedona.
Holotropic Breathwork is a practice that uses deep, rapid breathing and music with strong primal rhythms to induce a state of non-ordinary consciousness. It was developed by Stanislav Grof as a successor to his LSD-based psychedelic therapy. Neither Jer nor I really knew how the process would affect us. All we knew was that it would be a journey inward, and that really anything at all could happen in that altered state. It might be beautiful, it might be anguishing, it might be deeply disturbing. There was no way to know what would be waiting for us just beyond normal consciousness.
The process is done in pairs, one person breathes, the other sits and watches over. It has been a long time since either Jer or I have been in a position where we needed to rely on one another, but after so many years of being apart, we both wanted this chance to be there for each other. There was an introductory phase before the actual process began, and at the end of it we were offered a chance to choose an Angel card from a deck for a bit of guidance. Jer had never seen cards like this before, but I can never resist them, so we each used our intuition to peruse the pile of cards placed face down, and then chose one. The one I chose was called “Energy Work.” The picture was of a beautiful woman, her wings protectively spread over a cradle with an equally exquisite small boy inside. The words on the card made me feel certain that all I knew from my Reiki practice would serve me well here, and that it was right to call on those energies to protect us both. With Jer listening on, I asked for us to have the highest and best experience; one where we could learn, grow, love and know more about what was deep within ourselves. Then, I laid myself down along with all the other breathers and gave myself over to the process. Almost immediately I began to feel very cold – I began to tremble and shake uncontrollably. The music was vibrating all through me, a strong, aboriginal dance rhythm. I heard the strains of a flute in a canyon and felt tears come to my eyes, but that also was quickly consumed by the dance. I let myself move with the rhythms. It began to take me deeper inward. I remember feeling very grateful to be here with Jeremy, to know that we could share a moment like this; that our love for each other was something we both felt deep in our hearts. I reached for Jeremy’s hand and felt his warm reassurance,but soon the pounding rhythms pulled me once again back into the dance.
The music, the sound vibrations continued to mount. I remember trying not to resist my thoughts, just let them happen, let things unfold. Then a surprising thought popped into my mind; it wasn’t my mind I needed to release, it was my heart. Because I had suffered for many years from heart arrhythmias, I realized that there was a part of me that never fully trusted my heart to beat reliably. But now I saw my heart was strong, that I could count on it. I saw my heart dancing outside my body, brilliant red, taking on the beat of the pounding drums. It danced for a while before I flashed forward to see the end of my heart’s song. It was laying on some stones, dull red, and very still. I found I wasn’t troubled by my death. It felt natural, organic, an ending, but not of the song. I saw the many hearts of my family beating all around me, continuing the dance. Together our hearts linked, and we sank deep into the heartbeat of the earth. We went deeper still, past the earth, into the expansiveness of the divine, and there we continued to all beat as one.
I remember losing track of my breath. It had become very slow, and I had to remind myself to breathe. I stretched my hands above my head and opened them palms up. Energy flowed into them, strong and vibrant. I had a vision of wings unfurling, heart chakra opening. The music had past its zenith and I realized we were in the final stage of the holotropic journey, the winding down. I felt myself come back enough into my body that I sat up and motioned for Jer to sit near me. I put my arm around him, and from deep in my heart I told him that I was so happy that I had come back East to be closer to him. As I spoke those words, they rang with absolute truth, and I was at last able to be at peace with the heart-wrenching choices I’d had to make to get to this place. Jer and I sat there side by side, my arm around his shoulder. I finished the experience drifting in and out of a deep state of calm. Finally, with the warmth of Jeremy’s body anchoring me, I fully understood my heart’s choice. I was home at last.
My Angel card – Energy work – “Life can be electrifying because it’s very essence is energy. Your body is a remarkable field of energy that will positively respond to loving treatments. Your hands and heart are activated to give healing energy to your loved ones and clients.”
It’s been a while since I’ve written in my blog or my book, but today I forced myself back into the chair. For the first time in three months I decided to declare that the move was behind me and that life must go on. Way back in August, once we had set upon this new plan for our lives, to make the move to to be closer to all our children and grandbabies, we found ourselves having to manage a lot of moving parts. At first it felt very amorphous, like a distant goal without much of a timeline. But with the coming of the new year, the pieces all began to rapidly fall into place. I could no longer ignore that my time in Sedona was quickly running down. As February snows fell, I began a bittersweet countdown of goodbyes to all the things I loved about my 8 and a half years in the desert.
I think the Super, Blood, Wolf Moon had something to do with the timing of things. That rare and beautiful celestial event occurred in January right around Mark’s 60th birthday. We were in Florida, surrounded by all the kids and babies, as we watched the eclipsed moon turn red. When I first discovered Mark’s birthday was being ushered in by an eclipse with such a powerful name,I did some research. Mark gets a poem from me every year on his birthday. As soon as I heard about the Super Blood Wolf Moon I knew what the topic of this year’s poem would be. I soon learned though that this this moon was a whole lot more than just a topic for a poem. It’s presence in the sky seemed to have a particular relevance for what was happening within my family.
Any eclipse you see in the sky carries the meaning of beginnings, endings, culminations and clean slates. Eclipses are necessary times that book end the period you’ve been living in. It signifies that your current story is over but a new one is about to begin. You are entering a period where you will be encouraged to push out of your comfort zone. Whether you succeed or fail matters not to the moon. What matters is that you will learn and grow. One of the articles I read took the uncanny relevance of this moon to a whole new level. It stated that Super Blood Wolf Moons set patterns in motion that run in eight year cycles. It then went on to say that the pull of this particular celestial event was beginning to influence us as far back as this past July. Well, that caught my attention. Eight years ago, at the end of July, Mark, and I, along with David, Natalie, Jamie, two cats and our little five month old puppy, Lucy, made the big move to Sedona. Just a little over eight years later, in early August of this past year, Jeremy, Julie and Jamie made their pitch for all of us to live closer together again here on the east coast.
All full moons demand that you face your deepest, darkest emotions, but a full moon of this rarity is even more insistent. It will yank at what’s hidden within until you bring it to the light and allow it to be set free. Certainly in my family it became clear that we had reached a time of major shifts, of letting go, and of moving on.
After we left Florida things began happening at a dizzying pace. David and Natalie found and bought a house in Connecticut, just two miles down the road from the one we had bought back in October. Their house in Flagstaff sold before it was even on the market. Then began the arduous task of packing up our homes and the poignant task of saying goodbye to people and places we loved.
Mark and I had one other task that we had set for ourselves. Our eight years in Sedona had been ones of real growth for us as a couple, but growth isn’t often the easiest of processes, and the pathways forward are not always so clear to see. Last August we not only made a decision to bring our family closer together, but we also decided to see if we could find a better way to handle issues in our relationship that we had been struggling with since we were first wed. We signed up for four days of Marriage Boot Camp in Dallas in early March. At the time, it seemed like we had already set so many things in motion that March would be the best time to go. We didn’t know it then, but it turned out to be the very last thing we did as a couple before leaving Sedona for good.
I remember sitting with Mark in our hot tub the night before we were to leave town for the Bootcamp. I was looking up at the multitude of stars in the Sedona night sky, trying to memorize how beautiful it was. A part of me realized that something of such infinite beauty, while it can be seen and felt, is just too large to truly hold in our minds. There was no sufficient way to say goodbye to such a sight, so instead I moved onto something much smaller in scope, but equally intangible at that moment. What would Marriage Bootcamp be like? Would it work? Could four days really change nearly 40 years of ingrained patterns? It turns out that the answer to all those questions is yes. I think part of why it worked so well for us is that Mark and I were really ready to make that change, but we needed someone to show us a different lens for how to see ourselves and each other. Marriage Bootcamp was able to help us do that. What was revealed to both of us was just how much we really do love each other and value the life we have built together. I think one of the most powerful moments of Bootcamp for me was when I was encouraged to forgive Mark. If you had asked me before Bootcamp if I had forgiven him for past hurts, I would have said of course. But what I realized at this workshop was that while we had spoken of all the hurts before, I had never completely vocalized to him the extent of the pain I had felt and was still feeling. In this bootcamp setting, I held nothing back, and he took it all in with such love and compassion in his eyes. There was no doubt that he’d heard my words, felt my pain and wanted something different for me. The other moment that really rang true inside me was when we were asked to forgive ourselves. They had us visualize ourselves as babies, small children, and to hold those children in our arms as if they were our own babies. And then they asked us if the things we said to ourselves everyday were the things we wanted to say to this child in our arms. It shocked me to realize just how unkind I have been to that inner child. I would never treat one of my children in the way I have treated myself.
There were many other moments, and many people, that touched me deeply during Bootcamp. It’s not called Bootcamp for nothing. It’s a lot like that Super Blood Wolf Moon, forcing you to look at your deepest fears and darkest emotions. It yanks them out into the cold light of day so you can really see them, and in so doing, those fears and emotions lose their power over you. It becomes possible to let go, to finally be free.I don’t think either Mark or I will ever forget what it felt like to look into each other’s eyes and see all the love each of us truly has in our hearts for one another. It was all just waiting there for us to notice and let in. It will be there for us whenever we next find ourselves in conflict, and it will help us find our way through.
The glow of that incredible experience stayed with us as we watched all our belongings get loaded up and sent on their way to our new home in Connecticut. That loving connectedness was there as we settled Lucy into our camper van and headed out of town. We had one last breakfast with the kids in Flagstaff before we officially hit the road. Then the final moment was upon us. We hugged the kids and our grandbaby, told them we’d see them soon (they were leaving two weeks after us, and would be moving in with us for a couple of months while they did renovations on their new home). When all the words had been said and a few more tears shed, we climbed up into the captain’s chairs of our RV, and with Lucy staring out the window we began what was now a familiar journey to us, through the wide open spaces of the Navajo and Hopi reservations, through the New Mexican Pueblos, finally stopping that first night in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Day two, after a breakfast at a diner on route 66, we left the southwest behind, driving through the Texas Panhandle and into Oklahoma. We spent our second night at an RV camp ground beside a serene lake. Day three we drove through Missouri, where the highway took us up close to the St. Louis Gateway Arch. We then cut through the lower part of Illinois and into Indiana, where we finally got around to having some BBQ that was good enough to make up for the fact that we missed it in Texas. We spent the night just east of Indianapolis at a truck stop. Day four we traveled through Ohio, then crossed the Mississippi River for a quick pass through West Virginia and into Pennsylvania. We spent the night with family just outside of Philadelphia where Lucy had a chance to meet her new best friend, a doggie cousin named Moose, who is also a golden retriever. Julie’s parents made us a lovely, home-cooked dinner that night. The last day of our journey began with Julie and Jordan stopping in for breakfast and a quick visit with us before we headed off through New Jersey, New York and finally into Connecticut.
Before we ever arrived at our house, we made a stop at the train station where we picked up Jamie and two of her friends from her master’s program at Tisch. They all accompanied us on those last steps of our long journey in the RV. We not only had lots of help unloading the camper, but then we got to spend a delightful evening catching up with our daughter, hearing all three women laughing and telling all kinds of stories of life at Tisch and in the music theater world of NYC.
One week, and hundreds of unpacked boxes later, Mark flew back to Phoenix to help David, Natalie, Avery and their two kitties make the journey, this time by air. Little Avery, who had found packing an interesting game in the beginning, found the last days of the move very stressful as literally his entire world began disappearing into boxes. By the time he was on the plane, he was not only stressed out, he was getting sick. Jamie, in a continuation of her role as official greeter, met up with Mark and the kids at the train station on their way home that night. The next day, Friday, was Jeremy’s birthday and he arrived with Julie, Jordan and his dog Bowser in tow to christen the new house with its first birthday celebration. It was wonderful having the whole family here, but Avery’s condition continued to worsen and he developed a high fever. For a little boy whose natural state is always laughing and running, his silent stillness in his mother’s arms became alarming.
By Monday Natalie decided to take him to the doctor. She and David came back an hour later having been turned away from three different doctor’s offices. Needless to say, it was a most upsetting, unwelcoming beginning. As I held my distraught daughter, and heard her tearfully tell me that no one would help her baby, I had a very up close and personal look at how very broken our healthcare system has become. Fortunately, Avery started to turn a corner that night, and Mark had found an office in Stamford that took the kids’ insurance and who were able to see Avery Tuesday morning. So now the baby is registered with a practice we all feel very good about, and he is running around the house fever free, laughing, and playing, and talking up a storm.
We did have one other unwelcoming event. After searching for some place to go hiking with Lucy, we finally found some really nice trails that run along the Mianus River, just a couple of miles from our home. As we walked, we saw other hikers with their dogs off leash, so I let Lucy off too. I had heard there were some trails along the river that did allow dogs off leash, and for a brief moment I thought we might have found that place. I allowed myself to relax a little and enjoy the natural surroundings. It was so different from my desert, but equally as lovely with sun dappled trees, granite outcroppings, ponds, and many stretches running along the river. On the way into the park, Mark and I had even had our first sighting of a wild turkey. I found myself imagining that this could be my place, where Lucy and I walked free and communed with nature. But that vision was quickly shattered when we crested a hill and found at the bottom of the trail a policeman, gun holstered, violations book out. Apparently, we had crossed over to the Stamford side of the park where off leash dogs were not only unwelcome, but the offense came with a $100.00 ticket. I’d been trying for several days to just be patient and accept that finding my place in this new community, this new life-style, was going to take some time, but now I found myself fighting back tears. At least I managed not to cry in front of the policeman, but I no longer tried to stop myself from unashamedly yearning for my red rocks and open trails. When we got home that night, Avery was playing with a bowl of red rocks I had taken with me when we’d moved. We’d been assembling this collection of stones ever since we started walking the miles of desert paths behind our Sedona home. Many had come from my favorite meditation spots. As Avery played, he started taking the stones from the bowl and putting them in a wooden bird cage. I couldn’t help thinking it was a very apropos metaphor.
Now don’t go feeling too bad for me. If this is a cage, it is an incredibly beautiful one, one that allows me entertain Jamie and her NYC friends, celebrate Jeremy’s birthday, and live just around the corner from David, Natalie and Avery. I just need to be mindful that the Super Blood Wolf Moon doesn’t care if I succeed or fail. The moon’s only demand is that I change. I think I can safely say I’ve made some major changes. Hopefully, that big, old moon is satisfied.
There are moments in your life that you know will last you until the end of your days. The holiday season this year was such a time for me. As 2018 drew to an end, Mark and I traveled to Santa Fe to meet up with some of my family; my dad and step mom, Judy, my brother, Dan, my sister, Ann, her husband, Roger, and their ten-year-old son, Xavier. It was one of those trips that had a lot of uncertainty about how it would play out. My dad, at 87 years old, is very frail of health. No trip is planned at this point in his life without the caveat that at the last minute he might not be able to make it. We also had the challenge that Judy had recently broken bones in both her feet. At six weeks into the healing process, she had gotten a green light from her doctor to travel, and to officially start weaning herself off of the boot. She was determined not to let health challenges get in the way of this family holiday, and I think my dad was as well.
Assuming the best case scenario for this family reunion, I’d made a bunch of soups, and had baked lots of bread and cookies. After some conversations with Ann about our dad’s current state of health, I’d concluded it would be prudent to have plenty of food on hand in the condo we’d rented in case going out for meals proved to be too difficult. On the Friday before Christmas, Mark and I loaded up the car. This included our grandson, Avery, who we needed to drop off at his parent’s house on our way out of town. He is now (just barely) old enough to have occasional sleep overs with us, and this is something which all three of us absolutely love. One of the sweetest times of the day is when he wakes up. We bring him into bed with us. As we all snuggle under the covers, we sing songs together to greet the day, never fully emerging from that warm cocoon until the stars wink out in the sky. Once Avery is fully up, he runs everywhere wanting to see everything; the dog, the fountains, the cuckoo clock,but most fascinating of all for him is the great outdoors, and in particular the red dirt that is everywhere here in Sedona. If we could have taken him with us to Santa Fe we would have, but his parents had too much work to do to take a holiday break, and none of them are ready for more than one night apart. So, we said our goodbyes to our kids and our grandson and then headed east on Highway 40, through the Navajo reservation, past the Hopi Mesas, through Gallup, New Mexico and Albuquerque, and past numerous New Mexican pueblos, until at last we arrived in Santa Fe.
Mark and I were the first to arrive in Santa Fe, rolling into town late Friday afternoon. Everyone else was scheduled to arrive on Saturday, so I held my breath Saturday morning until the texts starting coming in confirming that we had a Christmas miracle of our own in progress. Everyone was actually on road. It was a very happy reunion, and that first night my Dad even had the energy to try out a little pub Mark and I had discovered called Fire and Hops. The food there was incredibly good. It was fortunate that it was very close to the condo because when we came out of the restaurant, we found that the night had turned bitter cold. It sucked the breath right out of our lungs. We all huddled around my Dad to keep him warm and hurry him home. Xavier’s concern for my dad was particularly touching. He spends a lot of time with his grandpa, often keeping him company when Judy needs to run errands. The connection between the two of them is very apparent. Xavier watches out for his grandpa, and that night he wanted to be right at my dad’s side lending him a hand as we walked.
One of the highlights of the visit was our one and only outing with my dad. We went to Meow Wolf. For those of you who haven’t heard of this amazing place, I will do my best to describe it. Inside an abandoned bowling alley just on the outskirts of town, a group of artists came together to create an entirely new experience in storytelling. With the financial help of George R. R. Martin they built an entire victorian home inside the hollowed out bowling alley. They call this house and adventure in non-linear storytelling The House of Eternal Return. From the moment you enter the house, you are transported into a mystery. A family has gone missing, a family with unusual talents that are both magical and mystical. Some kind of accident has left the home pockmarked with portals into different manifestations of the multiverse. You might open the fridge and find a passage into another world, or tumble down the dryer to find yourself standing beside the tree of life. Immersed in numerous art mediums you travel in and out of our current reality, each room offering up more clues as to what happened, but also raising more questions.
It is easy to lose your party in this place. The best of intentions to stay together are soon sundered with too many intriguing discoveries and pathways luring you ever on. I lost and found family at multiple junctures. At one point, I ran into my brother. Suddenly, the experience took on a whole new dimension. For a short while, it felt like we’d passed through a portal not in space but in time. Dan and I are just barely a year apart. I turned 60 this past spring, and with the coming spring he will also turn 60. But in that house, the years just melted away. It was us again, two carefree kids excited by an adventure. Together we read the TechnoMage manifesto hanging on the wall in one of the children’s rooms; a document so mind blowing,TImothy Leary would have been proud. We traveled through disjointed pathways that eventually led us into the parents’ room where we found some kind of harmonic invention; potentially a part of what caused the rupture of the universe all around the house. As Dan was sitting at the desk, keying up various tones on the device, the closet door in front of us opened and a man stepped out. I couldn’t resist and said, “Look, he literally just came out of the closet.” Dan could hardly believe I’d said that out loud, and he laughed, but he was also quick to note the man did not seem pleased at all with my observation. On our way back from humiliating our fellow adventurer, we ran into Ann and Xavier and ended up plucking the ethereal strings of a huge laser harp together.Then,upon learning Xavier had yet to see the TechnoMage manifesto, I carted him back through a few alternate realities into the child’s bedroom so he could read it for himself.
You might wonder where my dad was in all this. Despite our inability to stay together, we did have a plan. We had discovered a comfy sofa inside of the base of the tree of life, which was located in a very central part of all these colliding realities. We all took turns returning to this center of the universe, sitting there with him on the sofa, directly underneath some kind of plasma brain. My dad was on that sofa for a couple of hours, long enough that people began to assume he was part of the immersive experience and started asking him questions. Perhaps they believed they’d found an ancient wise one within the heart of the tree. As far as I’m concerned, they weren’t too far wrong. He’s most certainly at the heart and center of my universe.
I could go on and on about Meow Wolf and this immersive story within the house, but instead I think I’ll just tell you to put this on your list of things to experience. You can find all kinds of information about it online. Also, there will be two more of these Meow Wolf projects opening up in the near future, one in Denver and the other in Las Vegas. East Coast friends, I’m sorry, you’ll have to travel west to partake of this adventure. I have no idea if these new projects will be new stories or a continuation of this one. I am so intrigued with this one, I hope it is the latter. I could see endless possibilities and plot lines for this story.
We hadn’t booked any restaurants before our visit, which is a must in Santa Fe at Christmas time; but because we couldn’t be sure of the size of our party we decided we’d make our own Christmas Eve dinner. Roger smoked pork on a grill outside the condo we had rented. The smell was so enticing that it had other guests in the development wishing our Christmas dinner could be theirs. The rest of us made our own contributions to dinner. I nearly abandoned plans to make latkes when I saw the flimsy hand held grater in the kitchen, but Mark, not willing to accept anything as boring as oven fries, took over the task of grating all the potatoes and the onion too! After a very yummy dinner, several of us went off to partake in a Santa Fe holiday tradition, the Farolito. It is a night time walk down Canyon Road, where lanterns and holiday lights light the way, art galleries stay open late, and hot chocolate and hot apple cider are liberally served up. It was cold, beautiful, and like everything in Santa Fe at Christmas time, very crowded. Judy walked around in wide-eyed wonder admiring the beautiful night, the galleries, the crowds. Between her still healing feet and the fact that we’d left Dad and Xavier holding down the fort, we didn’t walk too far into the canyon, but it was long enough to claim we’d been there and experienced one of the highlights of the Santa Fe holiday season.
It had been a perfect day except for one serious miscalculation. On one of our many runs to the grocery store, Ann and I decided to buy a 1 lb bar of Hershey’s with almonds for our dad — who has a long history with hershey’s chocolate; it was the first chocolate he’d ever tasted as a young boy. He’d been given a box of them for his birthday (if I remember the story right, I think it was his 5th). After getting a taste of it, he had immediately wandered off and finished the entire box in one sitting. From that point on, no chocolate, no matter how fine, could ever compare to Hershey’s. I think both Ann and I assumed that at 87 years old, Dad would not be inclined to eat a pound of chocolate too quickly. Turns out to have been an erroneous assumption. At one point during the day, I noticed it was nearly gone. I checked to see who might have been helping Dad out. Only two people admitted to eating a square or two. I wasn’t too alarmed at the time, but in the middle of the night, my Dad became violently ill. I have a feeling the chocolate bar on top of all the other holiday food that day probably tipped the scale in the wrong direction. Until that point, I’d never believed there was such a thing as too much chocolate, not in the Schlager family at least. After a horrible night, my dad spent Christmas day extremely weak and disoriented. It was pretty worrisome to see him so pale and fragile. We all hovered close by in case there was anything we could do for him. Xavier took his favorite fleece blanket and tucked it around Dad to keep him extra warm.
Dad was on all our minds, but he mostly needed to sleep, so, since it was Christmas morning, we did a little exchanging of gifts. Xavier made me a lovely pin, an art project from school. I felt very special because he has lots of women in his life he could have chosen to give it to, but somehow I was the lucky one. At one point while Dad was sleeping, Ann, Xavier and I walked into town for a little fresh air. We arrived at the Basilica just as the bells began peeling calling the parishioners to mass. Immediately, I smiled, realizing that I had just literally heard the bells on Christmas day. That is one of my favorite Christmas carols. By the time we got home, Dad was able to take some tea and a little toast. As I tucked him back into bed, he took my hand and told me I’d always been so good to him. It brought tears to my eyes because it felt a little like a good-bye, but by dinner time, Dad was feeling strong enough to join us for some Chinese food. The next morning, everyone headed home, leaving early to get ahead of an oncoming snow storm. Dad made the whole trip without any trouble. The Colorado gang managed to stay ahead of the snow all the way home. Dan wasn’t so lucky, heading south on the I-25, he had about an hour of blizzard conditions before finally breaking free.
As for Mark and me, in a suddenly very quiet condo, we watched a beautiful snowfall in Santa Fe, and felt warmed by our time with family. We were reminded how precious every moment is, and grateful for what we’d just had. Our original plan had been to stay until Friday, but David, Natalie and Avery had all been sick during the week. Avery was waking up early every day and feeling pretty cranky, so nobody was getting much sleep. They were hoping we’d take Avery for another sleepover so they could catch up on some much needed rest. So Thursday, we packed up our belongings and headed back to Arizona. The forecast was supposed to be mostly clear, but from Gallup to just past the Hopi Mesas snow was falling and Mark had to navigate through white-out conditions. Then, as suddenly as the weather had come upon us, the skies cleared illuminating the San Francisco peaks under a cloudy sky. We rolled safely into Flagstaff in time for dinner. We ended our holiday the way it had begun, singing “Good Morning Starshine” with Avery as the morning star rose in the sky.
Recently, my cousin and her family came to visit us. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and she came bearing cupcakes for one of my nephews who was turning 27, and some old children’s books for my grandson, Avery. These were books that had been favorites of her children when they were little, and one of these books utterly charmed me. It is called Mrs. Katz and Tush, written by Patricia Polacco. It tells the story of an elderly Jewish woman, an immigrant from Poland, who has just lost her husband of many years. Her neighbors, an African American mom and her son stop by to pay their condolences. Mrs. Katz cries in the mother’s arms wondering what she will do, she is all alone now that she has lost her husband, who in her words was “such a person.” They never had any children, so her future does indeed look to be a lonely one. But the boy, Larnel, decides that he needs to do something to help Mrs. Katz, so he decides to bring her a kitten. It is the runt of a litter born in the basement of his building. The kitten is none too pretty, and has even lost its tail, so nobody else wanted it. When Mrs. Katz sees the kitten, she is unsure what to do. She’s never had a kitten before, but Larnel promises to help her, so she agrees to keep the feline and names it Tush, because, without a tail, the kitten’s tush is quite a prominent feature.
As the story progresses, Mrs. Katz falls completely in love with Tush. She knits toys for the cat, cooks her special food, and often, when the kitten has been especially pleasing, Mrs. Katz will tell Tush that she is “such a person.” But something else also happens after the kitten comes into her life; she and Larnel develop a very close bond. They discover that though they are very different, they also have a lot in common, the cat is only the start of it. Over time, Mrs. Katz becomes a true part of Larnel’s family, and together they go through many generations of Tush’s progeny. By the time Mrs. Katz passes away, Larnel is a grown man. She has been a part of his life and his children’s lives, and she is loved and remembered by all of them. When they inscribe her tombstone, the epitaph reads, “Mrs. Katz, our bubbee. Such a person.”
The book really isn’t meant for a 13-month-old. Avery’s tastes tend toward Boynton’s Barnyard Dance, and Donaldson’s The Gruffalo. Mrs. Katz and Tush is not even a board book, but for some reason, since Thanksgiving, Avery has asked me to read it to him on a couple of occasions. Maybe he senses how much I love this story. There’s something about Mrs. Katz and Larnel’s friendship that really resonates with me. It touches on themes that I am currently exploring as I write Ahote’s Path. Like Mrs. Katz, Ahote discovers that life can surprise you. There are times for all of us when we think we can’t go on, only to then discover that not only are we stronger than we know, but there is so much more to life than we had ever imagined. We look at ourselves and see someone separate and alone only to find that with just the smallest opening of our hearts love will come pouring in. Unexpected acts of kindness and generosity of spirit are the antidotes for much of what ails us. For Mrs. Katz, it was Larnel and the kitten who changed her lonely future, for Ahote it was a shaman named Storm Singer, and a vibrant, young Havasupai woman named Lena.
In the scheme of the universe we are all so very small. Our conception of existence is made up out of knowable patterns, but patterns aren’t the complete truth of who we are or what the world is. The possibilities for learning and growth are so much more than we can ever fully realize. You could look at this as a bad thing, but Ahote and I, we see it as a good thing. It means that over the course of our lives there is no end to the ways in which we can learn, grow, love and know. There is no end to our ability to discover new things about ourselves, each other, the earth, and the nature of the divine. The way to start this process of knowing begins by opening our hearts, by reaching out to others, and by always remembering to be humble in accepting all that we don’t know. When Mrs. Katz lost her Myron, she thought her future would be a lonely one, but she was willing to open her heart to an ugly cat and a little boy with a generous spirit. From there her world just grew and grew past her wildest imaginings. Ahote does the same, he opens his heart to Storm Singer and the Havasupai people, and soon finds himself immersed in an adventure that changes the course of his entire life.
So as the lights of Hannukah flicker out, and with all the other holidays of the season just around the corner, this is my prayer for all of us. Let our hearts remain open. Let us be kind to ourselves, each other and to the earth. Help us to be more loving, accepting and generous of spirit. Help us all to be humble enough to discover more of what we are truly capable of every single day.
On the second to last night of Hannukah Avery had a sleep over with us. It was his first without his parents, having just been fully weaned a little over a week ago. It was a great Hannukah gift all around, for the parents, the grandparents and for this extremely loving, irrepressibly happy little boy. I will leave you all with a few pictures of our Hannukah with Avery. He loved this holiday, from the latkahs, to the candle lighting, to the presents, to the sleepover. He is really such a person!
I am going to tell you a story. It’s one I’ve been saving, because I was looking for the right time to share a feel-good story about politics. Given the incredible turn-out during the mid-term elections, perhaps I have at last found the right moment. This story takes place in Flagstaff over a hundred years ago during a time when the town was going through some growing pains. I found this story in Platt Cline’s book entitled, Mountain Town: Flagstaff’s First Century. The book uses the town’s newspapers as its primary resource, going all the way back to the town’s beginning. In its early pages, we learn about lumber barons, successful ranchers, and entrepreneurial merchants who all shared a bold vision for Flagstaff. They were men who were not at all shy about digging deep within their own pockets to help guide their new town along a path that valued education, scholarly pursuits, and creating an environment conducive to raising families.
During Flagstaff’s first dozen or so years, a town government was organized, a town hall was built, streets and sidewalks and a water system were constructed. While these were all notable achievements, there were two accomplishments the town council was most proud of. The first was being chosen as the site for the Lowell observatory; a decision that put Flagstaff on the map for scientific scholars the world over. The second was the successful founding of the Normal School (the forerunner to what is now Northern Arizona University, NAU) which helped establish Flagstaff as a center for higher education.
By 1906, many of the old guard (which included some of Flagstaff’s most notable families, such as the Riordans and the Babbits) had served multiple terms on the town council. Feeling confident that they now had their town on a well-established path, the council decided it was time for others to take their turns at governing.
The council had a couple of hand-picked candidates that they were very impressed with, but a third nominee presented himself who they hadn’t counted on. His name was Benjamin Doney, Sr., a farmer and a rancher who was fed up with all the restrictions the council had been levying on the brothels and saloons in their attempt to move the town toward respectability. Sixty-eight-year-old Doney did not appreciate the council’s attempts to tame Flagstaff. He had a feisty, combative, disruptive character, but he was also charismatic, and many around town found him amusing. Through sheer force of his personality, he was able to convince a section of the population that the council was not concerned with the best interests of the common people. In the end, it was enough to win him a seat on the council and to also carry along a couple of other like-minded individuals.
Doney’s contentiousness soon drove away some of his opposing council members. Each time a vacancy appeared, the growing Doney majority was able to hand pick a replacement. Soon Doney’s power was such that he began to feel untouchable. He started hiring people of questionable character, placing them in important town positions, so that they could help enable his self-serving agenda. He also decided to go after both the Riordan’s and the Babbitt’s business enterprises. Both these families had played prominent roles in making Flagstaff a more family friendly town and had therefore earned Doney’s especial ire.
The story played out in a way that many weary American’s today will find familiar. Doney was able to disrupt and disband a lot of what the town’s founding fathers had put into place. Saloons and brothels quickly reasserted themselves in the center of town. Doney had just begun plans to force out Lowell and his observatory when events conspired to end what Cha’risa would have called koyaanisqati; the sowing of chaos and corruption.
Doney’s plans were starting to have an impact on the reputation of the Normal School. The school now had a sizable population of young people enrolled in its programs. As the news of Flagstaff’s about face spread, parents around the territory started voicing concerns about their young folk being in close proximity to houses of gambling and prostitution. The territorial government of Arizona became involved. It first responded by making it illegal throughout the territory for saloons and brothels to be within town limits. It then began to consider removing the Normal School from Flagstaff.
What had once seemed humorous no longer was. Regardless of how the citizens of Flagstaff felt about the bars and whorehouses, none of them wanted to lose the observatory, or the Normal school. No one wanted to put young people at risk, or lose the status the town had gained from their scholarly endeavors. At the next election, Doney and his cadre were soundly rejected. There was a mess to clean up to be sure, but within a year most of the damage had been reversed. Today, both the Lowell observatory and NAU (originally the Normal School) are still cornerstones in Flagstaff’s identity and culture. The old saloons and brothels of Flagstaff are now coffee houses, restaurants, and shops along a very charming and well-preserved historic downtown that runs along Route 66.
The moral of this story is, koyaanisqati happens. But fortunately for Americans, whether it be in small towns or on the national stage, we have been given the constitutional right to vote. In 1908 the town of Flagstaff understood they were at risk of losing something precious, and they rallied together to put their town back on a path that advanced their common interests. In the 2018 mid-term elections our very divided nation did the same. We came together in large numbers and raised our voices for what we felt would best serve our country and our values. Here’s what gives me heart. While the process wasn’t without flaws, or errors, or outright attempts at silencing voters, we still managed to do something quite impressive. At a time when our President would like to erode our rights, we came together and created a House of Representatives that has come closer to truly representing our population than ever before. It was not just a blue wave, it was a wave of women, many of them coming from very diverse cultures and backgrounds. For the first time, there are Muslim representatives and Native American representatives. We even have the youngest person ever elected to office. What we also now have is a House that we can reasonably expect to be a check on any more abuses of power. I heard a congresswoman from California speaking on the news the other night. I think she summed it up well. She said if there was a mess, it was likely women who would be the ones to clean it up. Well, there is a lot of cleaning that needs to be done, but I do take hope from the tale of Flagstaff’s Doney insurrection. It is possible to put your house back in order.
Now on to some news from a more personal front. Many of you have been asking how progress on Ahote’s Path is coming. It is coming, albeit much slower than I had originally anticipated. Here’s why. This past summer, at my grandson, Jordan’s, first birthday, my east coast kids (which now firmly includes my daughter, Jamie, she is never leaving NYC) made a very strong argument for my husband, David, Natalie, Avery and I to shift our home base from Arizona to the east coast. After some soul searching we decided to make the move. Since then, we have been very busy looking for the right place to settle and finding a home, but now many of the pieces are falling into place. By sometime this spring, Arizona will become a winter getaway and the entire family will live in much closer proximity to each other on the east coast. It makes me very happy to have found a solution that allows me to have much easier access to all my children, and that will also offer my two grandsons a chance to grow up in the warm brace of family.
Still, it will be a very big change for me. As I was walking back from an especially beautiful hike with Lucy the other day, the opening of a well- known song started to play in my mind. The words resonated so deeply that I knew at once it was both a cry of grief but also a blessing. The song is from Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, the words are as follows:
My day in the hills has come to an end, I know,
A star has come out to tell me it’s time to go.
But deep in the dark green shadows are voices that urge me to stay
So I pause and I wait and I listen
For one more sound, for one more lovely thing that the hills might say…
Whatever comes next, I promise, I will not forget Ahote. His story will be high on the list of finished projects for 2019. If people are interested in meeting some of the new characters peopling Ahote’s story let me know. I’ll start putting some of my character sketches into future blog posts 😊
“With brilliant effectiveness, they navigated the knife’s edge of the linear present and triumphed over it – finding ways to re-build their societies. Their world view guided them along pathways of action and wisdom and enabled them to reshape their world without bending or breaking under the pressure of linear time.”
The quote comes from a book entitled On the Gleaming Way, written by John Collier. It is one of the books I’ve been using in my research for Ahote’s Path.” This quote really struck me, especially because of the times we find ourselves in now. Our linear present has become so rapid and intense, and our people have become so divided, that often it feels our society is reaching a breaking point. But unlike the indigenous cultures John Collier is describing above, main stream America has never truly known any world view other than a linear one. If you asked most Americans which organ is the command center of the body, most would likely answer the brain. But among many indigenous communities it is not the brain but the heart that commands. They believe it is the heart that has the power to change our bodies, the power to heal our lives, our families, and our communities.
I think somewhere deep in all of us we know this to be true as well. We express this intuitive understanding of the heart all the time. When we want to know the truth, we speak of getting to the heart of the matter. When our government decides to tear families apart at the border as a deterrent to illegal immigration many of us cry out that this action that lacks heart. When our country is run by people who place personal profit over the care and nurturing of humanity and of our earth, once again it is our hearts that are heavy. When more news happens in a day than used to happen in a month or perhaps even a year, our minds become numb. But even when our minds are exhausted, it is our beating heart that tells us we can endure more.
In Collier’s book, he describes the Hopi as a people who believe the universe by nature is a harmonious, integrated system that is shaped by the way we perceive it. It is our own creative impulses that set the direction. The Hopis concluded based on these beliefs that it was ideal to live your life for the benefit of your society. It was important to be morally and physically strong. It was important to have a balanced heart, free of anxiety, so that your mind could focus on thoughts that went beyond your own personal wants to encompass the needs of the many.
As I thought more about Collier’s words, I realized that I have experienced exactly what Collier is describing through my Reiki practices. The heart is where I feel the power. It is the center through which the energy flows. And when I send this energy outward to others I visualize it going from my heart to theirs. What I have seen over the years is exactly what the Hopis described to Collier. I have seen this energy heal my body and improve my relationships with my loved ones. It has changed me so profoundly that it impacts the way I relate to everything, everybody, the world. My words and my intent create ripples that I can see subtly influencing everyone and everything around me.
So, of course, I had to reflect on how the opposite is also true. If my words and beliefs have power to affect everything around me, then it follows that words that aren’t meant kindly, or compassionately, or with the best interest of others in mind can also shape the world.
Collier’s description of the Hopi world view reminded me of a song that I really love. I’ve mentioned this song before in an earlier post. It is Five For Fighting’s 2006 hit, “World.” It’s the chorus that keeps running through my head:
What kind of world do you want?
Let’s start at the start
Build a masterpiece
Be careful what you wish for
History starts now
The question has even more meaning for me now. My grandson, Jordan has just turned one. Avery, at ten months, is close behind him. Looking into their innocent faces, I can see what they see, they have faith that the world is something magnificent to know and explore. I want the world they will come to know to live up to that faith. I want it to be a better, safer, kinder world. This is something I pray for every day, but up until now it is something I have done in the desert silence, alone. Now I’m putting it out there so you can know what kind of world I want.
I want for all the people of the world to love and respect one another, to nurture and protect each other and our earth. I want us all to treat each other with kindness and generosity and build a happier world for our children and grandchildren. #whatkindofworlddoyouwant?
I’m hoping that others of you will join with me. Use Facebook and Twitter and let the universe know what kind of world you want. Start now 😊
Got a package full of wishes
A time machine, a magic wand
A globe made out of gold
No instructions or commandments
Laws of gravity or
Indecision’s to uphold
Printed on the box I see
Acme’s build a world to be
Take a chance, grab a piece
Help me to believe it
What kind of world do you want?
Let’s start at the start
Build a masterpiece
Be careful what you wish for
History starts now
Now that Read Around Sedona is over, I wanted to make some final observations about this incredible experience. For nearly two months, Cha’risa’s Gift has been the center of attention all around town. It has been hands down the best experience I have ever had as an author, and I owe such a debt of gratitude to everyone at the Sedona Public Library for choosing Cha’risa’s Gift as this year’s community read.
When you put your book out there, you have plenty of hopes and dreams for what will happen next. For me, my greatest hope was that my book would find its way to people for whom the story would have meaning. Even though Cha’risa’s Gift is a work of fiction, I had wanted the book to highlight those things that had made profound and positive changes in my own life. These were things I had learned from my Reiki and meditation practices, and from my time alone in the quiet beauty of the desert. Ultimately, they became those things that I called Cha’risa’s gifts. We talked a lot during Read Around Sedona about what exactly these gifts were. For me, it was the first time I had tried to boil them all down to their essence. Laying them plainly out on paper, this was what emerged.
Generosity of spirit: giving to others is the key to personal happiness
Humility is the path to personal growth
The more we love, the more we heal
Anyone can rise above self-doubt and inner darkness to become a guiding light for others
One of the best parts of having my book be part of the community read was that I got to see how my story affected the people reading it. The response was everything I had hoped for when I first published the book. So many people related strongly to the story’s message. People showed up at the book club meetings and my two presentations with a strong desire to tell me how much the book had touched them. Some people wanted to do more than that. One woman reached out to me, sharing some of her own experiences with the Hopi, and offering to accompany me to the Hopi mesas to introduce me to a woman, a family matriarch, that she had befriended there. One of our community members, who had spent some years practicing medicine among the Hopi, approached the library to help organize a drive for hygiene products that we could then deliver to the clinic out on the reservation to help meet the many health needs there. I met her one afternoon when I was in the library and we immediately felt a strong connection. Since then, we have made plans to meet again so she can share more of her Hopi experiences with me. Many people shared titles of books with me, things they felt I should read given my interests, and as a result, my holds list at the library has become quite full! I sold lots of books, signed lots of books, realized I had actual fans, and through it all an incredible feeling grew within me. Cha’risa’s Gift had become something of note, at least in my own home town.
During the final week of Read Around Sedona, I had an experience that perhaps explains best what this moment felt like for me. I was working the volunteer desk in the Village library when a woman approached the desk with a stack of books to check out. One of the books was Cha’risa’s Gift. Inside my head I was thinking, “this is a moment, I am checking out my own book to a library patron!” I was wondering whether I should share this information with her, when she points to my book and asks me, “Do you know anything about this book?” I looked up at her, the smile that had been growing inside me was now stretching ear to ear. “I wrote it,” I said. Well, now it was her turn to smile and be delightfully surprised. Just then, our librarian, Cheryl, who had witnessed the whole exchange, ordered us both to stay right where we were so she could run and get her camera.
During Read Around Sedona I didn’t always meet people who loved the book. Especially in the book club meetings, I would always meet a few who had wanted something different or something more from the book. But I came to see these conversations as some of the most valuable in this Read Around Sedona experience. They gave me an impetus to really dig deep to explain my choices in the writing of the book. They also gave me a lot to think about, things I might do differently next time, which will be especially helpful as I move forward with book two.
My library put a lot of faith in me. The choice for this year’s community read ultimately came down to two books. There was mine, a book written by a local, self-published author, and the other was written by a well-known author from a mainstream publishing house. I am incredibly grateful to the library for taking the path less travelled. I think it turned out well for all concerned. The library had excellent attendance and community participation in all the scheduled events, I was brought into the spot light and had a chance to see my book through the eyes of my readers. It was a priceless gift, one that inspired and encouraged me immensely. As for the community, I think we all had a lot of fun. The community read brought us all much closer together. I now know and feel a fond affection for many more people on the library staff; I became a known quantity at our local bookstore, “The Literate Lizard,” where many of my books were also sold during the community read. I met and befriended other presenters, members of my community, other authors, and some of our distinguished war veterans. I feel a much deeper connection to my community now, and I think the reverse is also true, that they feel that same connection to me.
During Read Around Sedona, Natalie made a beautiful drawing of Cha’risa for me to share in my slide presentation. People liked it so much that they wanted to know if they could buy a copy. Natalie and I printed out a small run, only 18 signed and numbered copies. We still have a few left and I am going to offer them up to you, my faithful blog readers. If you are interested, they are $15.00 each. Just email me or message me here in the comments section and we’ll get it arranged.
This has been a hard blog to write. I started this post three weeks ago, thousands of feet up in the air on my 60th birthday, after having just finished an extraordinary trip to Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trip that began with spectacular sights in famous cities and charming towns all along the Danube River from Budapest to Vienna. That part of the trip was steeped in the finest luxury Europe had to offer. We ate amazing food, drank fine wines, and were shamelessly pampered all along the way. But there was a dissonant counterpoint to this journey, one that had us retracing the paths of our Jewish ancestors, following a trail that was defined more by what was no longer there than by what was. As we traveled along the Danube, and then later along the Vistula River in Poland, the scope of our tragic heritage enveloped us completely. We experienced quite vividly the violent, methodical rending of the Jewish culture from its long and richly entwined history with this part of the world. It was made more real to us than by any account we’d ever encountered in books, movies or news stories. My understanding of where I came from evolved as I walked down streets my ancestors had once traveled; as I saw the sights they would have found familiar, smelled aromas from the food they would have enjoyed, felt the warmth and joy of spring day as they might have, and as I heard the birds, the church bells, and the sounds of life that would once have accompanied their days.
All along the Danube and then the Vistula, we followed the path of the Jewish people from medieval times until today. We learned that there was so much more to the story than the parts we were familiar with; the religious persecution and pogroms that had driven our forebears from these lands. In the beginning, Jews were generally considered beneficial to the financial stability and growth of communities. They brought an understanding of currency with them from the Middle East that was often still unknown in this part of the world. They also brought literacy, and these two things together made them very desirable allies to those who were seeking to gain power. However, these connections weren’t always enough to spare the Jews. The common folk often resented the Jews’ elevated position, and it wasn’t hard for political rivals to use this jealousy to incite violence. But, when passions settled down, it was never long before some aspiring noble extended his hand in return for the assistance Jews could offer him. This repeating cycle of blame and acceptance followed the Jews through all of Europe, dating back as far as Roman times, but it became much more virulent in the nineteenth century after the Polish-Lithuanian Empire fell (an empire which had been known for religious tolerance). Anti-Semitism reached its darkest point with the Nazis’ rise to power in the late 1930’s. It was their intent to annihilate the Jewish people from all of Europe and beyond. It was a plan that came very close to succeeding.
As we traveled from Budapest to Vienna and then to Krakow and on to Warsaw, the memorials to the vanished Jewish communities mounted. We saw bronze shoes along the Danube in front of the Hungarian Parliament building. There, 4,000 Jews had been marched to the water’s edge and instructed to remove their shoes. They were then shot, and their bodies fell into and were carried away by the river. When the shooting finished, all that remained were the thousands of pairs of shoes lined up along the river’s edge. Now the memorial signifies the loss of more than 400,000 Jews who lost their lives in Hungary during World War II. In Vienna, we saw an empty tomb, it’s square sides compiled of 65,500 books carved in stone, each book representing one of the Jews of Austria who perished in World War II. In Austria, the names of most of lost Jews are known; it is also known where they once lived. We saw plaques on homes displaying the names of Jews who had once lived there and what concentration camp they had died in. There could be no grave, so this was the only marker of a life once lived. We visited the home studio of an Austrian artist and Holocaust survivor Arik Brauer. Having narrowly escaped death as a young boy on Krystal Nacht, he spent the rest of the war hidden away by his mother’s Christian side of the family. His Jewish father was not so lucky. He perished in a concentration camp. Arik discovered the details of his father’s last day of life after the war. He learned how it had been cold outside; that snow was falling as Jews were lined up to wait their turn in the gas chambers. An SS officer had draped a blue blanket over his father’s shoulders to keep him warm as he waited. Two of Arik’s most haunting paintings focused on these final moments of his father’s life, one he painted not long after learning how his father had died, the other he painted many years later. Both depicted the same scene, the cold winter day and his father wrapped in the blue blanket. The early painting was stark, the yellow star stood out prominently on his father’s chest; a look of hopelessness and resignation was on his face. The second showed his father dissolving into the snow, a large snow flake now in place of the yellow star on his chest, and emerging all around him was new life, even as he dissolved like the snowflakes all around him. In this second version, his arms are reaching upward, his face serene, as he leaves his body behind. The Jewish memorials along the Danube were a lot like Arik’s paintings. There was remembrance and pain, but life was irrepressible, fully absorbing the rivers of blood that had been spilled here, reshaping them into something entirely new.
When we left the Danube, we made our way to Poland. There we met up with my brother-in-law, Bill and his best friend, Brian, as we continued this journey of discovery. We learned that the Jews first arrived in Poland early in the middle ages, fleeing from religious persecution in Central Europe. When they first saw the land, they named it Polin – Po means here and Lin means rest in Hebrew. They chose this name because the land was so green and fertile, and the people welcoming. In Poland, the Jews were initially valued for being learned people, and for centuries Poland became known as a good place to live. The golden era for Poland and its Jews was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Poland was an empire aligned with Lithuania. It was an enlightened political system, a precursor to Democracy, with a legislature of the nobility that elected kings and helped effect political checks on the monarchy. The empire was known for having a large, ethnically diverse population, and for greater religious tolerance than other countries of that time. All that began to change around 1768, when the empire began experiencing internal rebellions and external pressures from Russia, as Catherine the Great began to have grand designs for Eastern Europe. By 1795, the political situation had deteriorated to the point that the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Hapsburg Monarchy divided up all the lands that once made up Poland and Lithuania, erasing the Poland Lithuania Empire completely from the map of Europe. Poland and Lithuania were not re-established as independent countries again until after World War I (in 1918).
Okay, that’s a lot of history, I admit, but suffice it to say there were good reasons why Poland had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe at the start of World War II. The Nazi invasion of Poland changed the equation dramatically. If you were a Jew in Poland in the lead up to World War II, there was no worse place to be. Of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, three million were from Poland, which was close to the entire Jewish population of that country. World War II wasn’t good for the rest of the Polish population either. The Nazis understood that the Polish people had a strong national pride, despite (or maybe even because of) the long years of being denied the right to have their own country. The Nazis determined they would break the will of these people so thoroughly that they would never desire independence again. No quarter was given to anyone who even remotely resisted or dissented. In the end, the Nazis killed three million non-Jewish Poles as well, so combined, there were six million souls who were extinguished in Poland. The picture to the left is a portion of a wall riddled with bullet holes, where Nazis lined up people involved in the Warsaw Uprising and executed them. Many years later, an artist added the band aid you see in the center.
Mark Bill, Brian and I focused our time in Poland on Krakow and Warsaw. From the start, we were struck by some very beautiful sights. Despite the tragic history of World War II and the years after the war under communist rule, it is still a very green and fertile country. We stumbled into a farmer’s market and couldn’t help but be amazed at the size and the vibrancy of their produce. Our grocery store displays are pitiful by comparison. I can personally attest to the fact that not only can they grow food that looks beautiful, they know how to prepare it. Everything we ate in Poland was delicious, and very reminiscent of the foods my Grandmother used to make.
Our first glimpse of Krakow made us feel like we were walking back in time; so much of the medieval city is beautifully preserved. People remember the kings of old fondly, and with pride, not just for their warrior strength but for their love of learning and of the arts. One of Europe’s oldest universities is in Krakow, the Jagiellonian. Nicolaus Copernicus graduated from here, and some of Europe’s most notable alchemists learned their craft inside the university’s ancient walls. And, of course, what medieval city would be complete without a dragon? The story is told that the castle is built upon a hill where a dragon once lived. According to who is telling the story, the dragon was either killed by a farmer who got annoyed at how many sheep the dragon was pilfering; so he killed the dragon by filling a sheepskin with pitch and leaving it out for the dragon to find and consume; or, the dragon was killed by the first king of Krakow, Stephen Bathory of Transylvania.
The Jewish quarter of Krakow is now very much a tourist attraction, filled with restaurants and outdoor cafes serving traditional Jewish and Israeli food. From every establishment, you hear live Jewish folk music. It feels a little Disneyesque; a re-creation to delight the tourists, but the mood is festive and people come here in droves. What isn’t the least bit contrived within the Jewish quarter is the Remuh Synagogue. Here, a 16th century Rabbi, Moses Isserles is buried. In his time, he was a greatly revered man of learning and a very progressive thinker. He was also a renowned Kabbalist. Such was his reputation that from his death until World War II, thousands of Jews would converge on his gravesite on the anniversary of his death (or as near as they could get, the cemetery isn’t very big). They came to mourn his passing and to deliver their prayers. During World War II, when the Nazis were reducing all signs of Jewish life to rubble, they spared this synagogue and graveyard because even they were fearful of what the Remuh might do from the grave. I’m guessing the Soviets must have come to a similar conclusion, because they also left this place intact. When Mark and I showed up to visit the Rabbi’s grave, it turned out that we coincidentally arrived on the day of his death (the Jewish holiday of Lag-Ba Omer). When we walked into the cemetery, we found almost two dozen Hassidic Jews singing and praying. Their voices would alternate between joy and pain as they held their vigil. After following a trail of Jewish history where so much of what we’d seen had been memorials of stones and silence, here, in a cemetery, we were seeing something of the European Jewish experience that was life affirming. Both Mark and I walked away feeling like the Rabbi himself had wanted us to see, hear, and be a part of this moment.
It is still hard for me to reconcile that uplifting moment with what we saw next. The Jewish memorials in Krakow were beyond heart-breaking. The one that haunts me the most is the tour we took of Schindler’s Factory in Krakow (made famous in the novel and movie “Schindler’s List”). It was so intensely immersive, that from the moment we entered, we were living the nightmare that was the Krakow Ghetto. I was sickened and shaking as I walked through a maze that led us ever deeper into the life these people had been forced to live, and the inescapable death that eventually came to them all.
In Warsaw, the story of what happened during World War II took on an even darker shape and form. Warsaw’s Old Town Market is full of historic charm. But, while Krakow survived the war mostly intact, Warsaw bore the brunt of Nazi wrath. Many of you have probably heard of the plan Hitler had for Paris; to lay waste to the city with all its historical and cultural sites. He had given the same orders for Warsaw. While the General in Paris could not bring himself to enact such destruction, the orders were followed in Warsaw, and all its palaces, historic homes, and churches were severely damaged; many reduced to rubble. After the war, and notwithstanding the Soviet occupation, the Polish people raised the money themselves for meticulous reconstruction efforts. They salvaged as much of the ruins as they could, recreating as faithfully as possible the old town section of Warsaw. They restored it to a close semblance of what it had once looked like during the height of the Polish Empire. Objects of historical and artistic value that had been secreted away during the war years came out of hiding and were returned to their original spots. The heart of Chopin, which had been stolen by the Nazis from the Holy Cross Church, was returned to Poland and placed once again in the restored pillar of the church where it had once rested. For those of you curious as to why only Chopin’s heart is buried there, it is because Chopin, once he became famous and a source of national pride, was not allowed to return home to Poland. Chopin was alive at that point in time when Poland was no longer a country, but rather, an extension of Tsarist Russia. When Chopin died, the Russians were afraid of what kind of nationalism might be unleashed should the prodigal son come home for burial. Upon his deathbed, Chopin asked his sister to smuggle his heart back into Poland, so his heart could rest where he longed to be. She did as he asked. Storing the heart in a hermetically sealed jar of cognac, and then hiding the jar under her voluminous cloak, she secreted the heart home and delivered it to the Church for burial.
The Nazis were not the first to oppress the Polish people, but they were by far the worst. They waged a campaign of terror that placed no value on human life and cared nothing for human decency. Every act of bravery was responded to with crushing force. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising by the Jews, the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish resistance, they all came at a heavy cost, snuffing out the very people who embodied the best and bravest of the people of Poland. The picture to the left is of Mark standing beside one of the few remaining sections of the wall that once surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto.
There is too much painful history here for me to adequately describe what happened to these people, or how this experience affected Mark and me. Here’s what I can say, the Polish people have preserved their tragic history with as much care and precision as they used in restoring Old Town Warsaw. There is a museum in Warsaw called Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Even if you spent a week here, you could not uncover all there is to learn in this museum. We took a tour with a guide who spent three hours just showing us the highlights. She talked until she was hoarse. She was not Jewish, but she was passionate about the subject and wanted to help us understand how it came to be that a place the Jews had once proclaimed Po-lin, “here I rest,” became a final resting place for millions of Jews and Poles.
Here’s perhaps the thing that struck me most: we focus way too much on looking for the ways we are different from each other. The truth is that there is no such thing as “pure” blood among anyone, anywhere. Borders have changed so much, people have traveled so much that within our genetic code, we are all constantly moving toward a greater merging of all our differences. One of our tour guides told us that he had only recently learned that he was the grandson of a Jewish woman who had hidden her identity during the war by converting to Catholicism. He said his story is proving to be a common one. If you scratch just below the surface of a great many Poles, you will find Jewish DNA. A former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski also referred to this, saying “If a Pole says ‘he has not even one drop of Jewish blood in this body,’ then he is not right.” So, maybe those very first Jewish settlers were not wrong in the name they chose for this place. Jewish blood has saturated the Polish earth, and even now it flows along hidden pathways through Polish veins. It’s like that Arik Brauer painting where his father is dissolving as new life is emerging. We are all part of one greater whole.