Friday, September 27, 2013

Winding Down To A Still Point

This is my first experience being with someone who is dying slowly. I’ve lost loved ones suddenly, without any chance to say goodbye. I’ve visited and taken care of friends and family during a terminal illness, but not for this length of time or this close to the end. Hospice has provided not only printed information of what to expect, but a variety of support personnel who function as educators as well as helpers. I was reasonably well prepared for the physical changes in my dying friend, but the rhythms in her decline have come as a surprise.

I – and most of us, I suspect – live my life with a greater or lesser degree of ritual. My days are structured with the things I do regularly, without much in the way of decision making, whether it’s my morning wash-up routine, the things I do when I sit down to work, preparing dinner and sharing it with my family, and so forth. The week has its own schedule, even though I work at home. I admit to having expectations about how each day will unfold, what commitments I have and what blocks of “discretionary” time. Although it’s been said that expectations are premeditated resentments (when it comes to our agendas for how other people live their lives), we humans seem to do better when things are at least slightly predictable. It’s exhausting to live in a state of not knowing what might happen next.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Singing Kaddish

Because my friend is dying
I went on to the land she loves
            To say Kaddish for my mother,
Under fir trees, through overgrown thistles
Past the echoing barn,
The last holdouts of summer blackberries,
Following a horse trail,
            a goat trail,
            a deer trail,
            a labyrinth carved by the generations: Exodus.

A cricket told me where to rest,
There by the single daisy,
            the Queen Anne’s lace.
Thorns snatched at the fringes of my prayer shawl.
I prevailed.

We do prevail, said the twilight.
We prevail from our ashes,
            in the sea
            in the cedar grove
            on the mount
            on the mountain
at the wall
at the wailing of the day.

I traced the Aramaic letters,
            stumbling like a stranger to my own faith.
And then, as if in the beginning,
A voice rose up through me,
A song that made itself up as it went.

This memory is all I have of you.
This moment is all we have ever had of one another.
This grief is a verb.
This peace is always, always becoming what it will be.

Deborah J. Ross
17 Tishrei 5774

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Healing Stories From The Heart

I know this journey well, for it was one of the lifelines that carried me back from my personal
abyss, which I’ve written about before and will do so again. I have heard a dozen variations of what brought writers to their knees and how they found the words to spin despair into hope. Although particular circumstances differ, as does the degree of incapacity, we have enough in common to recognize our kinship. We are those for whom the stories-of-the-heart have been a beacon, a sustenance, and a means of growing even stronger as we heal.

Sometimes, the very act of writing – no matter what the subject matter – helps us to focus. There’s nothing like a thorny plot twist or a challenging bit of dialog to distract us from other problems. Joseph Conrad said, “It’s work that saves us,” and this is as true for writing as for any other endeavor. Stories, unlike so much of real life, must have structure and meaning.

Some stories, on the other hand, do more than provide a framework for intellectual problem-solving. Whether they are characters, situations, or entire worlds we know and love, or whether they arise during our time of crisis, they speak to us – they call to us. They give us a voice. Perhaps a new voice, perhaps one we have lost or that life has battered out of us. Or maybe it is simply that when we are pushed to the wall, emotionally or physically, we need to connect with what gives us joy. Wellsprings of secret delight and unabashedly un-guilty pleasures. And healing.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Community of Love

 Horse people form extraordinary, loyal, and sometimes contentious communities. The same is true for readers (and writers!) of science fiction and fantasy. (And for martial artists, and musicians, and . . .) When two or more of these interests coincide, the results can be magical.

The second volume of The Seven-Petaled Shield, titled Shannivar, touches many of the areas of passion in my life. A strong woman hero, a martial artist, a horsewoman, her wonderful horses, a love story (me being a romantic at heart), a quest . . . One of the people I’ve shared a love of horses and adventure with is my friend Bonnie, about whom I’ve written in the last few posts.
Bonnie and I became fast friends over folk dancing and wild adventures during our college student days in the 1960s. Later, when she fulfilled her dream of owning horses, she carried me back to my own high school years, when I rode my own horse over the golden hills. When I’d visit, we’d ride together, clean stalls together, talk endlessly about horse temperaments and training, and swap tall tales “in the saddle.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

World-Building, Dying, and the Memory Lane of Comfort Foods

The brochure from hospice inform me that as a dying person’s body winds down, appetite becomes erratic and diminishes. The sense of taste changes so that formerly favorite foods are no longer appealing. The person eats less when they do eat.  Finally, many dying people refuse all food. This can be complicated because throughout human cultures, offering food is a way of expressing love. The dying person may continue to eat in order to please a loved one, but in the end the demands of the body prevail.

Besides nourishing our bodies, sometimes past the point of health and into diet-related diseases, food is laden with symbolic meaning. We celebrate with festive meals; we soothe ourselves with favorite treats from our childhood; we give candy to our sweethearts. Even the term “sweetheart” refers to sweetness, a taste, as do “honey” and other endearments. Taste and smell are the most basic, “primitive” senses, so our expressions of care go zing! right into the oldest portions of the brain. 

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building is creating different cuisines for each culture or social class, ethnic group or family. While it may be true that just about every cuisine has some version of pancake-rolled-around-filling, stew modeled on the canned stuff in American supermarkets shouts “generic fantasy!”

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Don't Hurry Up

From the time we’re small children, it seems that someone is always urging us to hurry up, to not
Photo by Cleo Sanda
dawdle, to stop procrastinating, to keep “on target,” and to do things faster. We are supposed to race through our lives without paying attention to the wonders around us (except, of course, when we’re supposed to be observant and appreciative). Of course, what is wonderful to a child is all too often invisible to the harried parent or teacher who herself has deadlines and schedules to keep. Homework assignments are Important; watching snails is not.

When I began to write professionally, I found myself juggling motherhood, a day job career, and the inner-driven need to set down the stories in my head. Writing time was precious and all too scant, and I had much to learn about the craft. My initial style involved “pantsing” (writing “by the seat of your pants”) or, as I put it, “taking a flying leap off the edge of reality, ” and then revising, revising, revising. As a consequence of this and the limited, fractured time periods available to me, my stories progressed slowly. I remember meeting a certain published author at one of my first convention, who breezily talked about how he never revised, he sold his first draft novels, and he produced three or four of them every year. I cringed to think of my one or two short stories and maybe one novel draft in that same time period (keeping in mind that I needed three or four – or more! – revision drafts). Was this what professional writers did? I wondered. And how was I ever going to produce that much, that fast, and of that professional quality?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Year-End Gifts

Now is the time when Jews around the world prepare for the new year by examining their conduct and “making teshuvah.” Teshuvah means “return,” as in returning to our source, re-turning to our best selves. It’s often practiced by saying, publically and privately, “If in the past year I have done anything to harm or offend you, I am truly sorry and I ask your forgiveness.” (Can you imagine a world in which the leaders of the most powerful nations said that to the peoples of the least powerful?) It is considered a mitzvah to do this. Mitzvah means commandment, but it also means blessing and declaration. We offer ourselves in blessing to one another (and, if you are a theist, to the Eternal) in our willingness to admit our shortcomings and our renewed determination to make the world a better, less broken place (“tikkum olam,” or “repairing the world”). 

So I say this to you, who are reading my words: It has never been my intention to harm you but if I have done so, by anything I have said or done, or failed to say or do, I am truly sorry.

My personal focus during this season of renewal is different from what it has been in the past.  The world is full of sorrows, as so many traditions point out, sorrows that cannot be mended by human means. There is absolutely nothing I can do to alter the course of my friend’s disease (ovarian cancer).

There is much I can do to ease her final weeks.