Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fishing & The Hospital Bed

Yesterday they brought a hospital bed into my father's house
.   .

Of course, in the past few weeks he has been declining and now he doesn’t have the strength to get up. But he did try, anyway.

And of course, he fell.

Dad has always been so independent…wanted to do things his way….so now he is being offered containment.   With high rails on the sides, it is his worst nightmare:: a hospital bed.

The guys from hospice took apart his own bed–the same one that I crawled into when I was

young and had nightmares. The same bed where I slept with my mom when he was on a trip.  That very same bed that contained a marriage….two marriages.

That very same bed was disassembled and put into the garage, next to the forty years’ worth of

dusty immunological journals and bales of bubble wrap, broken fishing poles and my grandfather’s tools and thousands of pounds of beautiful, precious rocks…some for cutting and polishing and some just to have.

Releasing forty years of medical journals or a few rocks, after all, requires that we open up that hole and make ourselves a bit vulnerable. It requires that we relinquish complete control. But is there anything that could make you feel greater loss of control than you 'd feel when total strangers disassemble your bed and carry it into the garage, piece by piece, and put something else in your room: something with rails to contain you?
A few days ago a young woman I know suddenly died. At home, just after her children went to school. She didn’t have a hospital bed. No bed. No hospice. No hospital.
Just gone.

The way I see it, a hospital bed means hope. It means that you are privileged to live at least one more day.
When I was five years old I used to go fishing with my father. I was his pal. We would leave very, very early in the morning with a car full of gear, his thermos full of coffee, and a bucket full of worms or minnows or cheese balls or wheaties balls or whatever folks said was working to entice fish in those days. We would arrive at the lake, the channel, the river, the pond…any and all of themin the dark, unload some gear and traipse, hand-in-hand, through the chill and the misty morning marsh mud, settling on a spot from which to cast our lines. We would arrive before the light and walk together until we found just the right spot.
I never noticed the chill.
Dad cast out the lines. I watched the bobbers: little red heads going up and down, and
again…and time to pull in the lines…a silver flash. Sunfish! Bluegill! Perch!
I was a great fisherman – for a little girl..

The first time dad was hospitalized he wanted to walk from the car to the hospital together. So I parked and we walked hand in hand towards Admissions. To both of us, at the same time, came the memory of the fishing trips.  (We mentioned it to each other just after they took Dad’s blood pressure.)  So funny -- because to me, once again I was five, with my hair in pigtails and my father with poles and bucket in one hand and his little daughter in the other. But that time we walked together.
Into the hospital.

When you are fishing, you know, you cannot really tell a fish that it is time to bite the line.
As much as you try…you close your eyes and hope. You call to them in your mind: “C’mon little fishie…c’mon big fishie...come find my line…bite my hook….c’mon…” and if I were a really good little fishie I would swim really really fast -- in the other direction.  And yet, we try to get the fish to bite...that is why we devise such ingenious inventions as Velveeta cheese balls and Wheaties balls and multicolored lures…
Somehow we delude ourselves into thinking that we can control the fish.  
That we can control the outcome.
But what is the thing that we really love so much about fishing? Is it the reminder that we are not in control? Is it the understanding that you are there, still as the earth, part of the wind? You and your line in the early light, in the morning sun…quiet, quiet.
And if the fish comes, then it comes.
It is the beautiful reminder that it is not anything that we really do. It just happens.

So yesterday my Dad got this hospital bed. Last night, during the night, he got out of bed, against strict orders. To do this, he had to climb over the railings. He climbed the railings, this time in the dark.
He really doesn’t like to be contained.
My father had someone dial my numberHe said, “It will be soon now. I know. I have been called.” Everything is clear now. I am not afraid.”
If you have ever fished, then you know that sometimes you wait and wait and wait in the early dawn, when the fish are hungry and jumping but none come to your hook.  Not one.   So you leave, you pack up your things, you trudge back with no fish in the net.   And a bit of a hollow feeling of loss.  Or perhaps no feeling of loss.

Sometimes you really do need to accept that it is not all in your control.

To my father, needing palliative care, having the hospital bed arrive, these were all losses to him because it meant that dad could not heal himself…the thing that he wanted to do most.  To dad, the hospital bed meant total loss of control…. It meant failure.
But when it was time…when there was no more time...there was only pain and fear.

In order to actually die, though, you need to be able to wait with your line in the water…wait with your eyes closed in the morning light…still to the chill…waiting.
You cannot call a fish to the line and neither can you call death to your door.
Death arrives when she arrives.
She whispers to you, “All is okay. No need to be afraid. All is clear. It is almost time.” And when she comes, you don’t notice the chill.
You walk with her, hand in hand…towards the lightening sky.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Spam & Pomegranates

Today I take off on a flight of fancy.


Spam, you know, is more than just unwanted email.  

At one time, and still – and forevermore, it was and is Mystery Meat, arriving as a gift in a blue tin package. 
And so it was on the same radio show where Martha Stewart talked about pomegranates that she also explained a great way to prepare Spam.

Martha Stewart was, as you may or may not know, raised in a family of six children.  
So, she said, she knows a lot about Spam. 

First, she suggested, find some really, really good butter.  Slice the Spam thinly and fry in that butter (kashrut laws not considered here) and then serve on very good crusty country bread.  

“It’s delicious”, she offered.

Then, when asked about pomegranates – how to de-seed them – she explained something complicated involving cutting and piercing and whatnot.  

Truth is, I didn’t really pay much attention to that part because for me, pomegranates have always seemed so remote…and now they are such a thing…a health food, a trendy thing, that for me I avoid them because I am, above all – stubborn, stubborn.

And secretly, I admit that I was afraid of pomegranates in the same way I am afraid of vespa scooters.  They are exciting and scary.  They look really cool and fun and secretly I would like to try but it has all seemed beyond me and – too much trouble.

But alas, this week I got inspired (and yes, a bit excited) when I heard of a cookie that I could make with dates and pomegranate seeds and almonds.   Pomegranate, after all, is a symbol of New Year.   Because – of the purported number of seeds – between 200 and 1400.   It is thought that the average number of seeds is 613 – the same number of commandments which God gave at Mount Sinai – and that each teeny sweet seed represents a blessing for the New Year.  Which…even in my limited math skills (I cannot do trigonometry) seems like a heckofalot of blessings.

So I am looking at the cookie recipe and I am thinking to myself: where am I going to get a pomegranate now that I am actually excited for a new adventure of a new year cookie recipe?   I ventured out!   The first practical (ahem!) grocery store I entered displayed them just inside the front door.  
A sign that they were just for me!  Not even knowing how to choose them I bought two.

Just like that.

I thought to myself – now what??

They sat on my counter for four days until I was ready to begin the cookies.

Now I don’t know if you do this – but before I juice a lemon, I roll it on the counter – back and forth, back and forth, using a small amount of pressure in the very same way that you rock your children when they are small (back and forth, but not on the counter, no…) and the way that you sometimes find yourself in the grocery line still doing the swaying thing so as to calm yourself, back and forth….

But ah, I digress.

Well, I was standing in the kitchen talking to my husband and I looked down at my hands and noticed that absentmindedly I was rolling the pomegranate on the counter beneath my palm.  Oh no, I thought.  What have I done?  Have I squashed the thing?   In the same way that you can feel bubbles in dough or clay or muscles that are tense on one’s back, I felt the flesh of the fruit loosen and then, acting completely on faith, I sliced open that fruit.

I turned half of the fruit over and seeds literally just fell into the bowl.   Then, I flipped the skin inside out and the remaining seeds fell out.  What, I ask, was so terribly difficult about that?  I can’t possibly be the only person who knows this, can I?   Somebody please tell Martha Stewart…and also that guy who is selling the five-dollar thingamajig which is a gadget to remove seeds that they are actually selling in the produce department.  

Now that is Crazy.

If that mysterious and magical pomegranate, replete with seeds and blessings could release all of its gifts with tender rolling embrace then what promise there is for the world!!!

(this is where I could write that if we embraced and rocked the world then it would release blessings but that would be a ridiculous thing to write so I am not going to write that.)

But you know – those seeds are not just pure sweetness.  They have a narrow fruit sweet layer surrounding hard stone.   You might also say that the seed is not all hard stone because it is surrounded by something sweet. 

But isn’t that like our lives?

Even the good has something difficult and the difficult has a wee bit of good.  Again, the paradox.  

The same can of whoknowswhatkindofmeat to be found at truck stops and gas stations can be sliced thing and with a bit of expensive butter can be enjoyed, enjoyed on country bread.     A seed, you see, from a prized pomegranate, like a blessing, can be released by a complicated maneuver or simply -- by softening.

Could it be that all the times in my life when I did stuff the hard way I could have just embraced and rolled gently and the problem would release under my hands?

Could it also be possible that all the times I was left with ‘spam’ because that was all that I could manage I could have made it a luxury with only some imagination and crusty bread?

And how very interesting because as foods go, I could easily think of pomegranates and Spam as opposites.

Just plain opposites in so many ways.

It’s the old game of the prince and the pauper: the king and the peasant.  But then --  doesn’t the king sometimes sneak out of the palace to be among the people – just to have a bit of country bread with good butter?

The wise and blessed pomegranate, after all, round to represent time and life cycle and perspective and wisdom – was thought to be very complicated.  

She sneaks out of her palace…she goes out into the country one day.  Perhaps she is misunderstood by her people.   Some think her difficult and remote.

But you know, she longs to know her people.  She is out one afternoon to walk in the town – hooded – so as not to reveal her late-summer rosy beauty.   In the darkening dusk she peers into the windows of the houses of her townspeople.  

They are, in fact, dining on simple bread and butter.  But, as all these stories go, they are happy.   Their houses are warm and there is laughter.
How she yearns for the laughter.  How she wants to share her blessings!

And somehow, without the use of a five-dollar gadget from the produce department she can do just that.

She approaches one of the doors.  She knocks.   A woman bids her to enter.  She can see only a hint of the scarlet pomegranate under the hood.  
For a moment she pauses…afraid and intimidated by the pomegranate’s presence.  But then she thinks…of all the doors in all the towns, the great pomegranate came to my door.  

Of all the days in my life this was the day that she arrived.  No, I will not send her away because I am afraid,  After all, it is not every day that such a one comes here.   

She draws in her breath.  She is afraid of the richness but draws open the door – anyway.

The guest enters.   It is warm by the fire, her hostess says.  Would you like a seat?  This guest has a reputation for being difficult so the hostess is unsure.

But yes, the pomegranate pulls back her hood to reveal her splendor, her rising, ripening crown.  Thank you, she says.  I would love to sit for a few minutes.  And so she sits.

And so they talk.

The woman learns that a bit of conversation can warm this guest.  As the minutes wear on, the pomegranate relaxes.  She softens.  Already the woman begins to feel the glow and the wisdom in her simple life and is beginning to understand that they are, the two of them, in fact….not all that different.

The hour now is late.

The pomegranate has enjoyed the company of she from whom she thought quite remote.  And now, softened,  rolled and lulled and rocked by conversation and fire she rises to leave.  She stretches herself and, amazingly, rains blessings over the woman.   Seeds hard and sweet, sweet stones…everywhere.   Seeds of possibility – hard and sweet.  That is how they arrive.

Rocks with honey and honey with rocks.

As it is in our lives…blessings are honey with rocks…and rocks with honey.
The most gifted child, you may know…has life a bit more difficult and is isolated – no one understands them.

-- Sometimes blessings don’t always feel like blessings.

There is this word in Hebrew, ‘Rimon’, which translates to Pomegranate.   Interestingly, it also translates to….hand grenade.    Of course it is in English as well….pome-granate…grain, grenadine, grenade.   The dangers, perhaps, of prosperity?

And yet, there is another story: a true story of a man named Billy Ray.   Here is a man without a home, panhandling on the streets of Kansas City.  One day a woman puts a few coins in the cup he offers.

A few coins – and accidentally, her diamond engagement ring.   And after three days…she came back to to him to ask if he has the ring. 

He gave it to her.

The woman and her intended, this couple,  was so touched that they started an online donation fund hoping to raise one thousand dollars over three months for Billy Ray – to show their appreciation.
But when the 90 days had ended, 8351 strangers had donated a total of more than $190,000 from all over the world – for Billy Ray.

Billy Ray explained that he was raised, from the time he was a little boy, by a minister – and that at that time he learned that integrity is -- just part of a person.

Blessings from a stone.

As of the time of this writing, Billy Ray had bought himself a car, put a down payment on a home and has reconnected with his family.

You know,  sometimes interaction between two so different can soften us – and possibly – anywhere between 200 and 1400 blessings (according to the experts) can fall upon us.    

Like late-season butterflies or apple blossoms tossed about in storm…now petals on the pavement.

They remind us about pomegranates and Spam…the complicated and the simple.

They are, after all, the best of friends.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Way of the Pencil

Next to my grandparents' telephone was a little silver can of little sharp pencils.

Very little pencils.   As would be a full-sized pencil, now used up and sharpened, all the way down to the eraser.  Every part of that pencil used except for the very end...sharpened and ready to begin...just before the end.

My grandfather lived during the depression.  

For him as for many, to cast away anything so precious as a pencil stub was to waste money on another pencil -- that could have been used for an apple, a sandwich....a coffee...or flour to make bread for a family.

To cast away a pencil was folly.
To dispose of a pencil was to waste a resource.

My grandfather came to this country at the age of fourteen.   
He was sent here by his mother, all by himself, begin a life.
To start again.

I cannot forget those pencils.
They were so characteristic of who he was:

keep going and don't quit -- stay sharp until the end.

Now, for me, it is pencils that are wearing me down.

As part of one-of-those-things-that-parents-have-to-do-these-days, I have had to take on a volunteer job.    

After almost twenty years doing PTA and the like, I really, at this point (yes, pun intended) I want to do the minimum.   But alas, I was required to take a job.

Instead of being a concert parent or a trip chaperone or shlepping snacks I decided that I would be the parent who would sharpen pencils.

How hard could that be? -- I thought.

I sent a note to the director of this program, saying -- hey, everyone has to be good at something in life.  

I might actually be good at sharpening pencils.


And truly -- I thought -- how could anyone be bad at this?  Further, I thought that the job would take an hour or two and I would have fulfilled my commitment for the year.

Woohoo! -- I thought.

Wrong.  Again, I judged prematurely.  

I seem to do this a lot.

I went to collect the pencils and was handed an electric pencil-sharpener ("trust us, you will need this, Leslie") and 576 pencils.


Now I am home, sitting at the kitchen table, sharpening pencils.   After every fifty or so, the sharpener overheats and just stops working, at which point I am sharpening by hand.   

The electric sharpener takes at least an hour to cool off before it works again.
I am getting calluses. 

So I take a break to make lunch.
Cook dinner.   Walk the dog.
Read something, talk to someone, clean something.
Start again.

So now one, two, three hours of work -- I have maybe done sixty or it's five hours, six hours -- eleven o'clock at night I am sneaking into the kitchen to do another fifty-seven pencils before bed.

I dream that night that I am drowning in pencils.
I dream that I am lying on a bed of nails -- er, pencils.

And oh, they have been freshly sharpened.  Ouch.

Somehow it seems that I have chosen the most difficult job.

Yet I can't quit -- I have to carry on.

Four days later I deliver four-hundred-something pencils.   Still almost two hundred sitting my table.

I am thinking I should make t-shirts:

Keep Calm and Sharpen On.

This has happened to me, though, about a million times.     Something crosses my path -- some path I have to travel -- that seems as though it is no biggie -- 

Seems easy.

But then my world overheats.   It breaks down.
I have to somehow keep going in spite of the fact that the part of my life
that made everything easy no longer works.

Things are not going the way they should.

Not only do I have to sharpen those pencils but now, in order to continue, I have to find a way to sharpen myself.    And you know, that is the most painful part.   Sharpening myself means honing the part of me that has felt most useful -- that part of me that everyone sees -- so that me, as my pencil self -- can be sharper and clearer in the world.

It is painful, in fact, to be sharpened.    All those wood shavings, all those parts of me -- always get everywhere.  

What a mess.

To write with a newly sharpened pencil there is precision, there is clarity.  
There is hope.

After awhile it becomes worn down and needs to be taken to tool.
After awhile I become worn down and also need to be taken to tool.

For myself as well, newly sharpened and fresh and hopeful looks quite a bit different than worn down and waiting for renewal.

And so we renew.
And so we sharpen.

Our mother takes us to the border and sends us to America because we need to begin again.
And so we do.
Just like my grandfather did.

It becomes a never-ending cycle, it seems.    Live our lives, wear down, sharpen.    Use the lead to write simple arithmetic.    Wear down the point writing the quadratic equation.    Wear it down writing a story.    Wear it down writing your story.

Draw a tree.    Draw a house.    Design a house.

Design a life.

If you don't like what you have written, if you make errors in your can always erase.   

You can always begin again.

But you always have to keep sharpening.
You always do.

When everything overheats and breaks down, when it always does --
then make lunch.

Read something. Talk to someone.  
Walk the dog.

Start again.
Keep sharpening until you are down to the stub.
Keep sharpening until you are down to the eraser.

Stay sharp until the end.

Remember that in a little cup next to the telephone -- or on the kitchen table -- there are five hundred and seventy-six reminders to stop volunteering for stuff.


There are five hundred and seventy-six reminders of renewal.