Love Nailed to the Doorpost

black and white image of a mezuzah on the door post of a house. The commandment to love is nailed to my doorpost. Ritualistically written on a little piece of parchment, rolled up, tucked inside a beautifully painted ceramic case, and nailed aslant to the doorpost.

I almost never notice it. Not when I’m rushing out of the house in the morning, book bag and gym bag slung over my shoulder, head down, rushing to the car, desperate to get to campus before the last available parking spot is taken in the lot at my building. It’s not love, I’m thinking about at that moment. It’s convenience.

Not when I’ve been working at home—on a weekday or Saturday (I know, Saturday, Shabbat, I shouldn’t be working!)—and want to walk up the driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. It’s not love I’m thinking about then. It’s hope. Hope for some surprise, though few surprises arrive in the mail anymore. Mostly junk mail and pleas to contribute to a cause, many of them causes that, in my heart.

Not when, with Laurie, I’m heading out for a Saturday night movie. I like love stories. Romantic comedies. Not that we limit ourselves to them. Most recent film: Paterson. Loved it. Definitely a love story: a love of poetry, a tender love story of a bus driver poet and his partner, a cupcake artist, a whimsical designer. Love stirs when I’m watching a good love story on the screen. Are movies my mezuzah? [Read more…]

The Landscape of Grief

a purple tinted image of a little island in a lake surrounded by deep green, hilly land on the edges. the image is very foggy, hazy, looks wet. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I drag my three children outside for a walk. They are too young to understand how desperately I need to take advantage of the warm weather even if it’s a landscape of dormant fields, melting mud, brittle gray plants that line the bridge and sides of the road, a bright red barn against yellowed grass.

Lest I get too excited about the lack of snow and cold, my husband reminds me that this unseasonably pleasant winter in the Midwest is the result of global warming. I guess we both have our ways of grieving.

This is our first day back in Illinois after spending a week in Texas to grieve the loss of my father. We’ve eaten too much or too little depending on our body’s responses to stress. We’ve laid flowers on his coffin and wept over him in a gravesite service that he might’ve hated, but was one that his daughters and wife needed. Then we mourned him at a church memorial service that he planned before his death, writing his own obituary and the opening remarks he asked my husband to read, ones that unapologetically deflected attention away from himself.

But we three daughters inserted ourselves into his plan, a plan that didn’t necessarily include our grief. In this midst of his intellectual, cerebral, worshipful funeral, we spoke of him in ways that might’ve touched him but also might’ve confused him.

In his effort to plan his truly humble memorial, he didn’t sidestep our grief to be unkind; I’m sure he knew we’d miss him terribly. Maybe he thought that if he could deflect attention away from himself, we wouldn’t be so sad. But what he wouldn’t have guessed, or what might’ve annoyed him, was that most people that came to honor him wanted more of him. [Read more…]

Calling the Lapsed

Black and white film image of the interior of a large white-wooden walled church, with high vaulted ceilings and large windows at the top of the walls. There are three enormous white balloons floating near the ceiling. To the left of the room is a table set up with things on top of it (maybe food). Several people stand in the center, holding a large balloon, and helping set up. The left and right side of the image is a blank strip of light from the film being exposed to light.The parish party was a bust. As a member of the Parish Council, I had promised—yet not followed through—on calling the database of lapsed Catholics the Council had acquired by asking parishioners to fill out notecards during Sunday Mass, listing friends and family members who had fallen away.

Of the targeted invitees, the lapsed Catholics, only one showed up. And the Council attendees ambushed her, four of us at once, smiling so hard our faces hurt.

I needed the party to be a success—mainly because it was only when I arrived on scene that I saw how hard one councilmember had worked to make it happen.

Sure, a few of us brought cookies, but otherwise, she alone had called the database; she alone had brewed the coffee; she alone had bedecked the folding tables with festive runners and golden coins filled with chocolate; she alone had been there since three decorating and putting out coloring pages and crayons for the children.

The initiative was her brainchild, since she herself, once lapsed, has only been back in church a few years. She is on fire, so excited to be Catholic again, which is a beautiful thing to behold, the energy she conjures for things about which the rest of us have lost hope. [Read more…]

Inheriting Trauma

Image of a porch with a wicker chair and a floral couch with a blanket over it in black and white.Until a few months ago, I thought Aleppo, Syria was one word. I’d never seen it in print, only heard it, and just once, from the lips of my grandmother. “I was born in Aleppo, Syria,” she said, and since there was no pause between the “o” and the “s” I figured she was referring to a country somewhere in the Middle East.

“You know, Damascus?”

That’s what she said next. I know because I have it on a cassette tape. I recorded her for an Oral Interpretation class I was taking in college.

This was probably my first tryst with the genre of creative nonfiction, and I loved it. I’ve always been shy and so it was freeing to immerse myself in another world while using my voice, my body, and my personality to portray that world. Learning someone else’s story helped me learn about myself.

My grandmother lived about two blocks from Calvin, the college I attended. The day I came with a recorder, she made coffee and “S” cookies,” buttery cookies smothered in powdered sugar. I had a list of questions for her, but once I pressed “record” my grandmother took off. “I was born in Aleppo, Syria,” she began.

I sipped my coffee, ate cookies, and watched. She looked pretty in a navy blue sweater, happy to her tell stories. She sat up straight and her hands rested on the table or around her mug, except every once in a while when she used an index finger or palm to thump the table when she wanted to drive a joke home. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “In Tandem”

a blurry shot of a rim of the top of tree branches on the bottom of the image, with a giant white sun sending rays out from the center of a black sky, rimmed with a halo of light.Here is a poem that takes aim at our clichés about aging and death. It does so with subtle cleverness, by putting “in tandem” an old spruce tree and the nursing home resident to whom the poem is addressed. Though there’s no stanza break, the poem divides into two parts, each of nine lines. The first part is all negatives: the clichés (like “it had a good life”) that we would not apply to the tree if it toppled over dead. The second part is all positives: how we “would have marveled” at the “pale corona of roots, / like arms uplifted and exposed.” The tree is anthropomorphized here: its uplifted arms make it more human than the nursing home resident of Part One. And more full of rich life: “we would have breathed in / earth smells and the inner life of the tree.” The poem’s final three lines again contrast the responses to the toppled tree versus the nursing home patient. The imagined tree evokes in the speaker and patient a “curious” scurrying happiness, while they know that any “small talk” of the patient’s “recovery” is fantasy. This is a poem that seems simple in its accessibility, yet it draws me into meditation on the ways our culture thinks about human frailty and mortality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]