Lavender and Pennies

Whenever you detect the mysterious smell of lavender in a house, it means a friendly spirit is passing through one of the nearby rooms. The fragrance has to come out of nowhere, I’m told, and it has to be strong. Otherwise, your mind is just playing tricks on you.

And if you see pennies lying around on tables and windowsills, that means the spirits have “been visiting” while you were out. Again, nothing to be alarmed over; just some of the everyday goings on in a world deeply infused with things from well beyond it.

All of this knowledge comes to me by way of a lady who’s worked for my family ever since I was a boy—call her May Iris—and has lived in the very same place since she was a girl. She knows all kinds of things like that, full of a wisdom that’s being lost at a rate too clichéd to remark upon.

For instance, she can distinguish, to the day, between blackberry winter, locust winter, and dogwood winter (in the South, important parts of spring; there’s a mesmerizing story by Robert Penn Warren called “Blackberry Winter”). [Read more...]

My Own Desert (Tortoise) Father

I didn’t spend enough time with Oscar this summer. For forty years I’ve believed time will never run out.

Visiting California, I took my annual walk through my childhood backyard of bougainvillea, crepe myrtle, and fruit. I picked some strawberries, paid homage to my name scratched in a concrete border in 1980, then wandered to the side yard to find Oscar.

I sat in the gravel as he gummed a piece of lettuce hanging in seaweedy strips. He’s always been a sloppy eater, clomping around the yard with leftover pollen or hibiscus petals sticking to his mouth. We exchanged eye contact briefly: aging gray meeting steady green sea-glass. I tapped his nose, just as I did as an annoying kid, and he snorted, yanking his head back in his shell.

My mother rescued the brooding desert tortoise when I was four. She found him lumbering across the street, a reptilian tank with no regard for traffic.  She grabbed the huffing beast and went door to door asking if he belonged to anyone. According to Mom lore, everyone laughed, exclaiming, “We don’t want that ugly tortoise!” and slammed the door. [Read more...]

Ovarian Cancer and a Circumcised Heart

Unemployment (1909), Kathe KollwitzCircumcise therefore the thickness about your hearts.
—Deuteronomy 10:16

 

Her dying and death circumcised my heart.

For weeks, I knew only this: she’s on a lot of pain medication; she’s hallucinating; she’s in the hospital; she’s home; she has a staph infection; she’s in the ICU; she’s doing better; she’s in rehab; she’s in the hospital; she’s coming home.

How did I know the little I knew? Mother. She conveyed what they, my brother and sister-in-law, wanted others to know.

We knew.

We thought we knew. [Read more...]

Quitting the Cancer Battle

Dessicated Seated NudeI am not a hero. After my last post, some readers wanted to know how I arrived at my attitude toward cancer, which is to be found somewhere between a religious person’s submis­sion and the cordial host’s welcome. A better question—one my oncologist and I wrestle with at every appointment—is why most cancer patients tumble into a bottom­less slough of despond.

My intention is not to criticize other cancer patients. To be told that you have a disease which is going to kill you in the next few months or years is to be slammed by a violent and remorseless truth that nothing in experience prepares you for. At first you can’t even process what your doctor is telling you, because there is nothing to which you can com­pare the news in order to make sense of it—it is a monster from beyond your imagination. Denial, self-pity, panic, despair: these are the natural reactions.

I was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in the fall of 2007. Just before Sukkot my doctor phoned to warn that an “opacity” had shown up on my chest X-ray during a routine physical examination. To the Jews, Sukkot is zeman simhatenu, the “season of our rejoicing,” but there was little joy in our sukkah that year. Our season was one of dread. [Read more...]

Emily Dickinson Erased

Don’t go to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. There isn’t anything there. Not her writing desk, not her books. Not her treasured items. Not her.

Emily Dickinson used the house in Amherst to hide from life. As she got older, Dickinson left the place less and less. Often, she refused even to greet visitors. She’d lock herself inside her room. There, she wrote letters and she wrote her poems.

And then, in 1886, Dickinson died. She left behind thousands of unpublished poems. They are strange poems for all their accessibility, and beloved by people everywhere. Her poems went out into the world in a way Emily Dickinson never could.

After her poems made her posthumously famous, Dickinson’s readers began to long for the presence of Emily Dickinson herself. People go to Dickinson’s house in Amherst to make some connection between the poems and the person. The house seems to be the key. The place where she dwelt in silence and solitary confinement would seem to hold secret clues. [Read more...]


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