About brijens

I'm a hopeful but often cranky menopausal midwesterner writing about questions without looking for answers.

In Gratitude to Brian Doyle–Prayers for Ordinary Things

Brian Doyle, who penned two of my all-time favorite essays, Joyas Voladorousa tribute to the beating heart, and Leap, died at the end of May. I love Brian’s writing, especially his essays–they are exuberant and joyful and magnanimous and funny and thoughtful and always probing into the workings of what it means to be human in a world both bewildering and beautiful.

Brian Doyle wrote about being Catholic in a way that made me glad to be Catholic. His writing helps me appreciate both the mess and the glory of the church, makes me glad for the sacraments and the ritual, prods me to hold more than one truth in my trembling hands.

Brian Doyle wrote so many things in his way-too-short life–essays, fiction, poems, and prayers–oh how dearly I love his prayers. In fact, since his death, I have taken to carrying around a small but powerful book, A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary. This little book, published in 2014, is a miracle in itself–a reminder to cultivate gratitude. The titles of the small prayers are reason enough to pick it up. Here are a few:

Prayer in Thanks for Decent Shoes

Prayers for Cashiers and Checkout-Counter Folks

Prayer for Women Named Ethel and men Named Elmer, for We Wiill Not See Their Likes Again

Prayer of Thanks for Hoes & Scythes & Spatulas & Toothbrushes & Binoculars & the Myriad Other Tools & Instruments That Fit Our Hands So Gracefully & Allow Us to Work with a Semblance of Deftitude

Prayer of Bemused Appreciation for Handheld Mobile Devices

Prayer of Thanks for Suntan Lotion

***

Last Wednesday I visited my good friend and walking and writing partner, Julie, in New Harmony, Indiana where she was attending the West of the Moon Creative Retreat led by the equally fantastic Terry Price and Dave DeGolyer (known in literary circles as Lafayette Wattles). If you haven’t visited New Harmony, you are missing out. Lucky for me, I live an hour up the road, so when Julie invited me to visit, I said, “Hells Yes!”

I arrived in New Harmony in time for the West of the Moon Reading at Sara’s Harmony Way. The abundance of talent, spirit, and soul in that room blew me away. I love readings and the chance to hear original poetry, fiction, and essays in a small venue. Dave and Terry have created something spirited and soul-tending in their creative retreat.

After the reading, Julie and I got a bite to eat, and then we went back to the hotel where we started pulling books out of our bags, and guess what–we were both carrying the little book of prayers by Brian Doyle. It shouldn’t have surprised me as this sort of thing happens all the time with Julie–we are forever reading the same book at the same time without knowing it. We often have the same books in our to-read piles. Just two weeks ago, Julie sent me a book I had been wanting to read but had yet to buy.

We laughed sitting there in the small room holding the same small book in our hands.

The next morning, as we drank coffee and tea back at Sara’s Harmony Way, we decided to write our own little odes to Brian Doyle’s uncommon prayers. I thought I would share the exercise and our prayers here. It’s fun. If you give it a try and would like me to post your prayers, I would be delighted. I plan to write a few more myself.

Here are the instructions for writing Prayers in Thanks of Ordinary Objects:

  1. Set your timer for five minutes jot down a list of ordinary objects.
  2. Look over your list and choose one.
  3. Set your timer for ten minutes or as long as you like and write a prayer of thanks.

 

Here are the prayers we wrote that morning:

A Prayer of Gratitude for Cloth Napkins by Julie Stewart

Thank you for cloth napkins, the washed softness of them on my cheek when I wipe away the errant dab of mayo. For providing a home for my daughter’s outgrown calico dresses, so that each time I pick you up from your place at the table, I touch her childhood again, what she was wearing when we sat outside on a blanket sharing a bowl of popcorn and a grape popsicle, the meal that consoled us earlier that day I had thrown a sippy cup at the wall and popped off the top and spilled grape juice, staining the white wall purple. Thank you for being small enough that I could salvage the section of fabric that remained unstained. Thank you for folding yourself up, crisply ironed, so that each time I retrieve you, it is like starting again, a new day, a change to nourish myself and clean my face of any messes I leave behind. Thank you for nestling the knife and spoon, waiting to meet the fork that stands guard on the left. Thank you for being square, for having sharp edges and straight lines, when so much of life is complicated, for being able to be folded in half once and then again to make a neat rectangle, but when life gets fancy, for being able to become a flower or fan, for being both beautiful and useful, the true measure of thing’s value. Thank you for coming back to the table again and again, never letting yourself be tossed away because life got a little messy.

A Prayer in Thanks of Spoons by me

Thank you for spoons, for their slightly ovally cupping. For their perfection in soup and sauces, for the way they make tasting easy, the way they hold liquids aloft and towards your lips, for their scooping and stirring and scraping. For big spoons and wooden spoons and plastic spoons, for those tiny spoons covered in a soft material that changes colors when the food is too hot—imagine a chubby baby without a spoon in his little curled up fist–eyes poked out, food not eaten if there were no spoons. Wait, imagine ice cream, yogurt, creamy tomato soup, oatmeal, milk shakes, banana pudding without a spoon, imagine iced tea in need of a little sweetening without a long handled spoon. Think of hot gravy, steaming in its boat on Thanksgiving without a sweet ladle to puddle it onto mashed potatoes and corn. Oh good glory to spoons and the way they feed us. The way we take their image into our beds, the way we shape our bodies in their likeness to hold each other close. Oh spoons.

 

 

 

 

 

Times They Are A’Changing

It’s true what they say–the less you write, the harder it is to write. It’s been a month since I’ve written here, and I suppose it’s about time.

The past month has been one of enormous change. But aren’t they all? We like to think we’ve got a handle on living, a sense of what’s coming, a method for navigating our particular circumstances, but that’s an illusion–or at least I think it is. Things are changing all the time. Things are enormously changing all the time, but mostly we don’t notice.

Take Peanut for instance.

In the last month, Peanut graduated from high school, enrolled in college, and flew off to New York for a quick five day trip with her lucky mama–that’s me. I hadn’t spent that much alone time with my girl since those first almost three years of her life–her older siblings were in school every day and her little brother hadn’t been born yet.

Peanut was not what you’d call a “good” baby. She cried a lot. She wanted to be held non-stop. But I had time, so I carried her with me everywhere, and I taught her to love the up and down motion that occurs when your mother is doing squats while holding you. This turned out to be a pain in the ass–MINE–pun intended.

But you know what else those early years with children taught me?

You never get it right.

Babies and toddlers are constantly reminding us that we have to go with the flow. And things are always flowing with those tiny growing beings. Just when I thought I had Peanut on a sleep schedule, she got a cold and the sleep schedule went out the window. Just when I thought I had a pretty good meal plan going for Sheldon, her little brother, he tossed his chopped broccoli sopping in butter to the floor and has not since eaten a green thing.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, in one of her many books or interviews or online classes says that change is always occurring–at the cellular level. IN other words, there is no stasis. (Forget for a moment that I did not direct you to the quote or section in her work and decide for yourself that you will look her up, order one of her books, listen to one of her many teachings on the Internet, and you will be forever changed although according to Pema, you already are.)

We cannot stop the march of time.

Cells reproduce and die, neurons snap, wounds heal and reopen and heal again. Children throw gloriously ridiculous purple faced fits and then sit calmly for hours. Hawks hatch from big hawk eggs in a nest down the street and fly away before you can zoom your binoculars in to get a look. Bird shit is washed away in the next rain and you’ll never find that nest again. This is the way it goes.

I fight change all the time. And fighting change is a hopeless endeavor, a losing battle.

I tell myself all the time–you’ll never get it right. I know it sounds pessimistic, but it’s actually pretty damned freeing.

A long time ago, when my two oldest children were toddlers only 15 months apart, Anne Lamott told me (no, not directly, but I like to pretend we are friends) that I was going to fuck up. It was a revelation to me. I remember nodding my head in wonder and relief because I was an uptight little mother worried about every tantrum, every banana not eaten, nap missed, watering eye, runny nose, all the scabs and bruises and those breathless NOs screamed with a demonic ferocity before red-faced and tightfisted my child collapsed into a writhing mess on the dirty vinyl floor.

I’m gonna fuck up, I thought. And everything changed. If I was going to fuck up, I might be able to just enjoy this glorious mess we call life.

Of course, I never remember this, but I’m a wee bit lucky because my kids and my husband are experts at reminding me that we all fuck up.

I hope they never stop because when I stop worrying about fucking up, I start looking around, amazed and awed by the ever-changing landscape that is life.

 

What Jimmy Kimmel Said

63 years ago, an 11-year old boy who loved baseball sat right next to his mother while a kindly old pediatrician explained to him–you have a hole in your heart. This meant for that young boy, no baseball, no track, no basketball.

I imagine this appointment broke that little guy’s heart, and his mother’s too. They didn’t have a lot of resources, and whatever disappointments they were handed, they took chin first. I have a picture of them in my mind, sun filtering through a high dusty window–dust motes flickering in the air. There were no tears.

Not quite 20 years later, my dad had open-heart surgery at The Cleveland Clinic to repair that hole in his heart. He had a scar that began at his belly button and traveled up almost to his collar bones. My mom remembers seeing him for the first time post-surgery, the breathing tube running into his throat–he looked like he’d been hit by a Mack truck. Family legend has it that her knees gave out and she sank to the floor right where she stood.

He survived the surgery (and another one 40 years later) and continues to live even though his heart still gives him the business. But his heart disease was a pre-existing condition. My parents spent the next 40 years, making sure that he had some sort of employee-sponsored insurance plan, and my dad worked his damn ass off–that’s for sure. But when he changed careers late in life, my mother went to work to make sure they had insurance. It wasn’t a given–not until they aged into Medicare.

 

***

30 years ago, a skinny college student with short hair, packed up her 1974 Dodge Gold Duster and drove home. Her parents were admitting her to a psych/eating disorders unit with her consent. She could no longer remember eating a meal that hadn’t been fraught–food was both enticing and frightening. She couldn’t eat with control like other people. The vomiting. The shame.

For close to 60 days, I lived on a split-third floor in a residential psych hospital. Half the floor housed mood disorders and half the floor housed eating disorders. There was overlap. I was not cured when they released me a few days before my 21st birthday, but the long stay did disrupt the cycle of binging and purging that marked the hours of my days.

There would be no more treatment. I now had a pre-existing mental health condition. Insurance companies could attach this nifty little thing called a rider to insurance policies. A rider excludes coverage for certain conditions. I aged out of my parents’ policy because I was no longer a student and I was 21, so insurance was out of the question until I was married and on my husband’s policy. I learned quickly to omit those 60 days from my health history.

***

In 2013, my 14-year-old daughter lost 25 pounds, drank a ton of water, and stopped menstruating. I thought she was following in Mom’s footsteps, but I could find no evidence that she was purging. In fact, it was weird, she was drinking sodas and gobbling down big bowls of Captain Crunch and Frosted Flakes. She had never been a sugar girl. She’d always preferred popcorn to Pop Tarts, peanuts to pie. I couldn’t figure this one out.

There was the strange issue about her smell though. She smelled like fingernail polish remover. I sniffed her. It drove her crazy. I sniffed her some more. She frowned and pouted and peed like mad. It took me a day or two of sniffing, but finally I looked it up–breath that smells like fingernail polish remover. And there it was–diabetic Ketoacidosis.

The nearest children’s hospital is almost three hours away. The ambulance was just the right size for the nurse and the IV delivering life-saving insulin and my daughter. I tried to climb in there with them, but there wasn’t enough room, so I had to travel with my husband. It was a quiet trip.

Insulin, test-strips, meters, needles–they aren’t cheap, but they cannot be done without. Type 1 Diabetes is an auto-immune disorder. My daughter’s pancreas doesn’t produce insulin. There is no option for discontinuing treatment other than death. As we prepared to leave the hospital–to begin our post-diabetes life, the social worker told us–You are lucky the affordable health care act is in place. She was even a little scoldy, perhaps she was tired of arguing the ACA’s benefits–without Obamacare Type 1 Diabetes can be a nightmare for young people.

***

Just last week, while I sat in a hospital room with my dad who was soon to have his  heart shocked back into a sinus rhythm after a year of atrial fib, the House of Representatives voted to repeal and replace certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

While our president mouthed all over the place that pre-existing conditions would continue to be covered, the  new provisions allow states to apply for waivers that would let health insurance companies offer paltry policies. These policies wouldn’t be required to cover the 10 essential health benefits mandated in the ACA. States who wanted the waivers would have to set up so-called high-risk pools — to protect insurers from high-cost patients–like my sweet daughter.

My daughter, Peanut, and is 18. She graduates high school in one week. She can remain on our health insurance policy for 8  years. But what happens when she leaves our policy? What happens when she graduates college but finds a job that doesn’t offer employer-sponsored health care? She can’t go one day without insulin. How does she survive?

IMG_2592

Peanut on her way to Prom May 2017 (dad and Wonder photobombing in back left corner)

Here’s what a caring gal told me on FB about my concerns: if one of my four children was in a position where medical premiums or costs were incurred I would advise them to disconnect their internet, get a cheaper car or take the bus, and eliminate things that weren’t essential to take care of that responsibility.

I couldn’t respond to that.

How do you respond to that?

I guess this post is my response.

I’m going to leave you with Jimmy Kimmel who said it all so well.

A Little Sustenance–Poems for the Weekend

I can’t remember not loving poems.

A little girl, I loved reciting rhymes, delighted with the rhythm and cadence and sheer joy in taking words in, memorizing them, and speaking them back into the world.

Poems have a shape, a form, even when they don’t follow any formal scheme. They are containers for memory, experience, grief, joy, story, or the lack of story.

Poems can thrum with electricity, crackle with surprise, or list with unease. Poems do everything prose does in a modicum of the space.

Poems meet you where you are. That’s what I love about them. Most folks believe that a poem must mean what the poet meant when she wrote it.

I don’t.

I believe the poet releases the poem to the world and it begins to breathe on its own. It finds a reader where she lives and it weaves its magic into her experience.

National Poetry Month will be over this weekend, so I thought I would link here to a few more of my favorite poems. I hope they feed you the way they feed me.

The Envoy by Jane Hirshfield

One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.
Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.
************************************
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise.
*************************************
Listen to Mary Oliver read Wild Geese
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
*************************************
Each of these links will take you to a treasure trough of poetry.
I’d love it if you shared the names of or links to poems you find, poems that move you to read them over and over again.
Happy Poetry weekend!!!

A Bold Thursday–Lucille Clifton

“I do not feel inhibited or bound by what I am. That does not mean that I have never had bad scenes relating to being Black and/or a woman, it means that other people’s craziness has not managed to make me crazy.”
Lucille Clifton

Sometimes I need a little swagger.

There are days (too many) when I get caught in front of the mirror staring down a minor blemish or hair gone wild with frizz or that rib fat that sprouted the night of my 40th birthday.

It is too damned easy to see lack. Especially when I’m tired, or the sunny spring days have turned gray and rainy and the sidewalks are littered with debris from yesterday’s storms that ripped through town.

It’s too damned easy to hunker down, to moan as president trump says the newest dumbest thing–how about dismantling the courts or pulling the insurance rug out from under those who have preexisting conditions. Sometimes the world is overwhelming.

On days like this one, Lucille Clifton is what I need. Clifton’s poems remind me to be bold.  Clifton reminds me that I cannot let “other people’s craziness” (or my own) tell me who I am.

Here are a few lines from homage to my hips. Follow the link to read the rest of the poem and then let’s all put on a little swagger for a day or two.

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
***

God Says Yes to Me–Kaylin Haught’s wonderful reminder

I worked at a community college for 15 years. I taught Ged courses, and ABE reading, English, science, social studies, and US and IL constitution. Mostly I tried to help folks to improve their skills, but there were always tests. Many of the people who came through room number 210 needed to pass their GED to further their education or to apply for a dwindling number of factory jobs that recently started requiring a high school diploma or GED for hire.

During that time, I worked for a mighty little half-pint of a woman named, Donita. In my life, I’m not sure I’ve known a person more intent on using the full power of her position and time to help others. She worked tirelessly for the folks who needed our services. She listened to their stories and used those stories to implement the best strategies for individual learning.

And while our main goal was to get these folks through our program and onto the next best thing, she gave her instructors lots of leeway–if it worked, we had the go-ahead.

I’m a poet and writer. I could see no better way to boost reading and comprehension skills than to read poems together with the students. And so, with Donita’s blessing, that is what we did. She made sure each student had a poetry book-Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry edited by Billy Collins.

Poetry 180 is the book form of Collins’ ambitious program during his tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States to make poetry accessible to everyone. The book features 180 poems–a poem for each day of the school year–to be read in high schools. Collins says the idea behind the project was to “assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing–poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.”

Like I said, my boss, the mighty Donita, purchased these books for the students, and we read and read and read. Folks who never read poetry before, sat in circles and read the poems they liked to one another. It was magnificent. And their reading skills improved. I have always believed that a poem is a microcosm of a world, and if you truly enter that world everything expands. It is magical.

Today, I want to share a couple of lines from a poem I first read in Poetry 180, by Kaylin Haught. I encourage you to follow the link so you can read the rest of the poem, and then spend a little time on the website checking out other poems.

 

God Says Yes to Me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes




Elizabeth Barrett Browning–On Love

51 years ago today, my parents were married. 25 years ago today, my oldest daughter, Isky was born. Two days ago, my husband’s mother, Grace, died after a long illness. I’ve been thinking about how the ways these three life events come together–how we can celebrate the whole of a lifetime by honoring the weave of love.

Here is a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that calls to that love.

Sonnet 43

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.





Briefly it enters . . . Jane Kenyon

It’s Friday. Much cooler today than it was yesterday. I’m inside, but my feet are cool in my flip-flop slippers. Does anyone use the word thongs anymore for flip-flops? I first typed “my feet are cool in my thongs” and realized that folks would wonder why my feet were slipped into my underpants. Does anyone ever say underpants? Is a thong considered underpants?

Even if the above questions are appropriate for a woman my age–born after the underwear/thong revolution, I’m getting off track here. Another time, perhaps.

***

With Easter only a few days in the past, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and church and religion and spirituality. There is so much I do not like about organized religion/Catholicism, and yet in church on Sunday morning all the perceived separation I feel on a regular basis (perhaps more regular after the November election) slipped away. It dissolved in the choir’s one-voice. I don’t always feel that way in church. Sometimes I feel it when I’m out walking–suddenly I am the birds singing, or the tree budding out, or the dandelions growing up between the sidewalk cracks.

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks, a poem by the late Jane Kenyon reminds me that the heart of love is this very oneness. I am sharing a couple of lines here, and  hope you will follow this link to read the rest of the poem:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….
**

Emily Dickinson

The birds continue to sing. That is what I think every morning when I wake up around 4:45 and hear the cacophony of bird song. I don’t get up then–Goddess no–but I do lie there, very still, and listen for a few minutes. Birdsong in the morning gives me great hope.

So today I share one of my favorite all-time poems by Emily Dickinson

#314

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.