Tag Archives: stories

Limitless Compassion for All Beings

What did you expect?” he murmured.  “Time passes.” 

“That’s how it goes,” Ursula said, “but not so much.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tucked a napkin into the dog-eared copy of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and stared at the ice crystals splayed across the tiny airplane window. The clouds swirled beneath like the surface of oceans, broken only by the islands of the Rockies and the fecund and unpredictable bodies of the Cascadian volcanoes, thrust upwards out of the Pacific sky like whales or mermaids.  We were on our way home to Seattle after three days in Philadelphia, where we had traveled to bury my grandfather.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

At his funeral, it was recalled that he was the only child in his family born in America, that he spoke Yiddish growing up, that his father Zuffa died just before the Great Depression and Morris began to care for his elderly mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, when he was still a young man.

Morris's father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

Morris’s father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

His older sister Esther died at the age of 20 and Morris lost one of his lungs to illness while he was a teenager. He and his mother moved from one flat to the next across the neighborhoods of 1930s Philadelphia, her continually convinced they were being cheated on heat and rent. He once showed up for a job at a soup factory once with a few hundred other men, only to be told that the promised wage had been lowered.  When the men grumbled, armed Pinkerton agents appeared on the rooftops.  He watched Jackie Robinson play baseball, an experience he later recounted to a rapt audience of second graders in my husband’s classroom.  He fell in love with a beautiful and kind woman named Frances and with her raised two children. He survived a heart attack in his forties and more heart problems later.Frances Saller Fox

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

He road tripped across the entire country with Fran and explored Alaska while visiting his son Howard. He picked his grandson up from soccer and read books to his grandchildren and built things out of blocks and played dressup with us with unabated joy. He contributed to our educations, inquired about our pursuits and adventures with love and without judgement, and gave money to Doctors without Borders and the the Nature Conservancy and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was a proud progressive and he played on the floor with his four great grandchildren right up until the end of his life. He would have been 98 this July.

Morris's great grandchildren: Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

Morris’s great grandchildren playing after his funeral.  Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

He lived at home until a week ago Tuesday, when he broke some ribs and was taken to the hospital. I was watching the Stanton Moore trio play at Jazz Alley with my husband and son when my dad called to let me know Grandpop had fallen.

After I spoke to my father, I returned to the dark booth to sit with my husband and son. The band played “A Waltz for All Souls.”

In a few days they had begun to stabilize my grandfather’s pain, but they worried about pneumonia since he had only one lung. I heard that he had eaten some hummus and challah, and took this for a good sign, as they are some of his favorite foods. My son and I made art and chose photos to cheer him up in the hospital, and I went off to work a Friday night shift at the pub.  On my dinner break, I read an email that suggested he might be improving. A few hours later I dragged a sodden bag of compost out to the dumpster in the alley and called my father.  It was then that I learned that my grandfather was gone.  He had died on the 23rd of January, his wife’s birthday.

I walked into the edge of the construction site next door to the pub, knelt in the giant clods of upturned mud next to an excavator, and cried without restraint.  It was almost midnight, and there was a sliver of moon.

In the morning, we told our son his great grandfather had died, explaining that Gpop’s body stopped working because it was old, and that he would be buried next to his wife, my Nana, a woman he loved very much. Several days later, sitting in the funeral procession, Callum asked “where is Gpop?” I reminded him that Gpop had died, and his body was in the wooden box we had seen at the funeral home. “But where is the box?” he asked from his carseat. “Its in a special car up front,” I told him. “Grandpop gets to lead the way to the cemetery.” Callum was quiet for a minute, then asked thoughtfully: “But how will he drive the car if he is in the box?”

buddies.

buddies.

It was bitterly cold at the cemetery, and the headstones leaned against each other for support, some fallen off their bases, Hebrew characters etched in granite against the wind. We stood in the snow and the mud and the syllables of Kaddish were spoken into the winter air. After the service, my parents and siblings and my son and my husband and I wandered deeper into the cemetery, picking our way through the snow.  My chest felt bruised from the inside, and the air was sharp and painful against the skin of my face. We rested our hands on Nana Fran’s headstone, remembering her sweetness, and stood in front of Morris’s mother’s grave, and his sister’s, his brother’s and his father’s. We reflected that Morris mourned where we stood that day at five different points in his life, twice as a young child.

A flock of wild geese banked overhead and flew over the cemetery, and I turned to watch them beating their wings against the grey January sky, their cries eddying across the field of graves.  I recalled Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

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You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Later my brother and father would send pictures from my grandfather’s apartment: his baseball cap, hanging on his desk chair. His Sunday copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel, opened to “The Week Ahead.” His copy of my recently published book, sitting on his nightstand.  His robe, folded on a chair. Staring through my tears at these artifacts of his final days at home, I remembered the wild geese over the graveyard, and it seemed to me that there is nothing more precious than this unbroken chain of ordinary moments, family and solitude and breakfast and love all tangled up together in a narrative without beginning or end.

I miss my Grandpop because he was my friend, because he was kind and good and dear, because my world has always held him and now he is absent. I miss him in the way grandchildren miss their grandparents. When I allow myself to consider that my father has lost his father, and his mother, that my mother has lost two fathers and will someday loose her mother, that I must someday say goodbye to my own parents, my husband to his, that our son must someday say goodbye to me, and his father, it begins to feel like a I am falling into a canyon of grief, a canyon so deep the bottom will not reveal itself for some time.

And then I remember that a force cut that canyon. Like a river over a thousand years, or a perenially gusting wind, love and living have carved out the space in which we grieve. Gratitude and grief make each other possible.

On the airplane, I set aside One Hundred Years of Solitude and pulled up Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying on my phone, a minor miracle of technology and spiritual transmission.

“when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us,” Rinpoche wrote, “we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

Fox, Morris Born 1917. Passed away Friday, January 23, 2015 at the age of 97. Beloved husband of the late Frances (nee Saller) Fox. Loved father of Ellen Lang and Howard (Theresa Trebon) Fox. Beloved grandfather of Erika (Michael) Shanik, Mark (Melissa) Lang, Sarah (Ryan Reilly) Fox, Izaak (Danielle) Fox and Emma Fox. Cherished great-grandfather of Emily Shanik, Audrey Shanik, Callum Reilly and Charlotte Lang. Preceded in death by his siblings Nathan, Frank, Benny and Esther Fox. Funeral services will be held on Thursday, January 29 in Philadelphia, PA. Memorial donations made to Doctors Without Borders or Jewish Home and Care Center appreciated.

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Filed under basic goodness, Change, death, Family, literature, memory, mourning, poetry

foreclosed upon

photo(6)

The neighbors have been
foreclosed upon
which is to say their house was paid off years ago
and then Gloria took out a second mortgage to help a family member in trouble
and then she died of pneumonia
and her survivors fell behind
while the bank crept ahead
and there was drug addiction and fighting
and now they are throwing in the towel
and scattering
and so the possessions they will not take
are being dumped
daily
in piles around the run down
brown house
built a few decades after our Great Depression grey one.

This morning I sat on our bed
staring at the piles through the cedar boughs
people made trips from the house,
dragging items across the grass.

Each of these houses had a matriarch;
Gloria across the lot,
Annie in this house,
they raised their kids in these houses
sent them off to various wars,
some foreign,
others domestic.
and both women went about the business of dying
in these houses.
I know little about them otherwise,
except that Annie was white and Gloria was black,
and the names of some of their children.

I call up their thirty-two year old selves,
and make them sit beside me on the bed
in the dresses they would have worn in 1939, and 1969, respectively
and I sit here in my jeans and sip coffee in the middle,
and we stare out the window together
contemplating the mortality of
All Things

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Filed under Americana, basic goodness, Change, memory, Mothers, Ordinary, watching it all go by

ask questions. people will tell you their stories if you promise
to listen
roll “history” around in your mouth
and see how it sounds when you say it out loud

test it out for righteousness
and the metallic taste of propaganda
coated in sugar

understand that the difference between those hours and these is not a flat timeline

the past inhabits the present
and the present inhabits the future

and you feel your familiar ghosts crowding in;
unknown ancestors
dreams of your former self
storied poets
anonymous nannies
and private photographers
college dreams
and immigrant fantasies,

Americana writ thickly across the land

and you in the midst of it
becoming a part of the past

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Filed under Americana, art, basic goodness, Change, fathoming, History, howard zinn, meditation, memory, photographers, stories, waitressing, watching it all go by

Annie jumped the fence this morning

Annie. Photo credit Andrea Fuentes-Diaz. http://www.afdphotography.com

Annie jumped the fence this morning
I drove loops around our neighborhood
Staring in vain down alleys
Hoping for a flash of white
But the only sightings were plastic
grocery bags on the wind

Stopped at the park down the street
Breastfed the baby in the drivers seat
And watched a dozen ducks startle
all at once scattering from the reeds
all at once settling together,
In a unified splashdown

At the church on 14th, the readerboard says only
Jesus forgive me.
The skies are slate grey and a cold rain begins to fall sideways
Pelting the clouds of pink and white blossoms
which burst from their buds a week ago,
and are now looking sort of sheepish,
like the girl in the flashy dress who showed up early for the party.
La Nina spring, they say.

I circle around the elementary school many times,
watch parents ushering their tiny backpack-clad progeny

go home to change the baby’s diaper, and
the neighbor from the strange yellow house across the street
comes down the driveway
to breathlessly inform me Annie’s been in her chicken coop
100 yards away this whole time.
there are few survivors, she says.
she has Annie locked in her house,
and i walk across the street to reclaim her
there is no sign of chicken carnage,
i catch a glimpse of the inside of the home
it’s the sort of scene you see on tv shows about hoarders,
dim and impossibly cluttered, with only a narrow aisle to navigate.
She rushes off somewhere,
and I’m left wondering what the bill will be

Later,
a friend calls to tell me of tragic losses.
i navigate rush hour traffic to pick up the car at the mechanic in lake city
as i drive onto the Alaska Way Viaduct
the radio plays a commentary on the likelihood of a tragic viaduct collapse
the rain is unrelenting
the card won’t go through at the mechanic
and i sit on the phone with the bank
until its sorted out
transfer the carseat out of the loaner car
as sheets of rain soak through my sweater
and crawl back into rush hour traffic in the other direction to pick up Ryan

on Northgate Way, i pass a protest at Planned Parenthood
women holding aborted fetus posters in the downpour
across the street a bedraggled man holds a damp sign
that says only
I need help.
I want to support his campaign but he’s on the wrong
side of the street

my husband and I drive back across town
to attend our weekly class on karma and the 12 Links of Inderdependent Origination
the baby crawls among the class participants,
making new sounds and playing everyone’s water bottles
and I stare through the big windows
at cherry blossoms hovering in the dark
thinking about effect
and cause

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Filed under Assata and Annie, basic goodness, Dharma, stories, watching it all go by

Waiting for Annie’s birds

She was pregnant here too,
in this little house set back from the street
in South Seattle
I think of her sometimes, running her fingers over her belly,
standing in the hallway I stand in now
feeling tired, and curious,
wondering about the tiny person living under this stretched-out skin
wondering what lies ahead

She raised six children in these rooms,
and I know that there were mornings during the Great Depression
when she watched the sun come up through these very windows.
She prepared meals in the same kitchen i do, while the Second World War raged
and as the Atomic Era dawned,
I know there were nights she laid awake listening to her husband breathe
in the same bedroom I do.

She worried about money here,
and got bad news in the mail here,
and shed tears alone in this very breakfast nook
at least once
of that I am certain

She planted the cedar tree outside my bedroom window
and the flowering dogwood I gaze at from the laundry room
She cooked on a wood-fired stove for years, right where I stand now to make tea
If i run my fingers over the plaster I can find the place the stovepipe met the wall.
I think of her every time I roll out a piecrust

She watched news of Vietnam in this living room, I am certain,
shaking her head beneath these arched plaster ceilings
She welcomed visitors and grandchildren through this very front door
as Reaganomics trickled down poverty on the neighborhood around her

knowing this, today I wrapped my fingers around the dented doorknob
and did not turn it
but stood there
in her footsteps

she washed dishes at this sink during the First Intifada,
and climbed these steps as the Iron Curtain fell
She grew feeble here while I learned geometry formulas in high school,
and she filled birdfeeders outside these windows
as I drove past on the freeway, bound for college to the south

Her elderly son Roger told me she received a card on her hundredth birthday
from President George W. Bush
and that she quipped
“that’s silly, I didn’t even vote for him.”

Sometime during the second US invasion of Iraq,
Roger built her a platform off the back steps,
so she could wheel herself out to watch the birds congregate on her feeders on sunny mornings

As she began to die, they moved her into the room that will belong to our son
there was a bed for her nurse
and a hospital bed for her
and a white rotary phone
and now I want this stanza to sound like Goodnight Moon
but it won’t.
although I’m sure at some point
there was a comb, and a brush
and a bowl full of mush
and a quiet old lady,
whispering hush

She may have breathed her last breaths in the room where we’ll read our son bedtime stories
I do not know.
if she did, it does not seem macabre to me
but right, somehow.
She lived here eighty years,
and I know nothing about her.
Sometimes I bake pies in her kitchen and feel I know everything
that matters

When we came to see the house for the first time, we noticed the birdfeeders were full,
though she’d been dead a year
and in a few minutes, i saw over a dozen hummingbirds
Roger had been feeding them in his mother’s memory
and he made me promise that if we bought the house,
I would do so also

weeks and weeks went by before i acquired new feeders
and a few more weeks passed before I got around to filling them

in the meantime
we ripped out the ceilings and walls in her bedrooms,
we tore up her carpets and put down bamboo floors
i don’t know if she’d like the changes

The birds have stayed away
since there’s been no food for them
and the yard has been thick with the chaos of a remodel

but the feeders are full again
and the quiet has returned

and I am waiting for Annie’s birds
and baking pies in her kitchen

and hoping she knows that I will love her home
the way it ought to be loved

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Filed under Americana, basic goodness, Change, Family, History, love, marriage, memory, Mothers, Ordinary, outside, Peace, poetry, Pregnancy, stories, watching it all go by

riding the Coast Starlight.

On a grey October Wednesday, I catch the number 22 bus downtown, then walk through a light rain to the train station. Buy a ticket, and board the Coast Starlight southbound to Portland.

I find my seat and settle in as the train nudges out of Seattle’s King Street Station, swaying gently from side to side. Work on an editing project for a while, glancing up every now and again to watch the landscape unrolling alongside the tracks. Eat an apple, and a burrito I’d made that morning from leftover quinoa and black beans. We pass through marshland dotted with the golds and browns and reds of autumn.

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After a few hours, I wander to the observation car. Get a cup of dining car coffee and find a seat facing out the window. The train track angles, then runs parallel to the interstate 5 for a few minutes and I realize we must be going sixty or sixty-five, since we’re going just a little bit faster than the big semi-trucks.

Think about how how unusual it is to face east when traveling south across the landscape. I watch the traffic flying along beside us on the road and think (in a macabre sort of way) how strange it would be to watch a wreck from this perspective. How the wheels of some car, never attached to the pavement to begin with, could leave the road, taking someone’s life could flying thru the air to crash into someone else’s… Realize, as if it is a novel concept, that the train would keep moving steadily south thru these autumn trees and the tragedy would recede from view, because of course an amtrak wouldn’t stop to help at the scene of a crash. The scene would disappear but that sick unease would remain in the pit of your stomach, the knowing that the accustomed can break so easily and that the rest of the world will mostly just pass by when it does.

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The tracks angle away from the interstate. Pass thru towns that should have thrived, located as they are along the tracks, but which are now shrinking into rural obscurity, since the freeway has become the main blood vessel of the body of the nation. Old farmhouses filled with unspoken stories and fading wallpaper. A dock rotting in the woods by a lake that doesn’t exist anymore. Broken car parts and rusted out washing machines, filled with reeds.

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I sip my coffee and listen to bits and pieces of people’s lives. A man going to visit his son and watch him play football in Bakersfield. A young woman who is worried about money. Another young woman who flirts with the man going to Bakersfield, and talks about how she raised her siblings because her mother couldn’t. A middle-aged man who sits nearby and assembles a guitar from pieces, then plugs in headphones, props sheet music up by the window, and proceeds to play a song that no one but him can hear. Its poetic, somehow.

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Look at my reflection in the window of the train and realize that I am nearly 30. An adult, by some people’s reckoning. Decades of grade school spelling tests and family roadtrips and seminars at Evergreen and solo hikes on Rainier and flying kites in the potato fields behind our house when I was ten. Years of muddling through relationships and trying to figure out how i fit into the order of things, and coming to understand, on some level, how gender and society and body were constructed and also literal. All those days! All those hours and weeks and months trying to plan my life and doing yoga and trying to find healthcare and being a waitress and falling in love with mountains and recording people’s stories and sitting alone transcribing them and wondering what it all meant… watching the layers of reality pile up and peel away and getting a sense of how America is layers of sediment and story and violence and redemption and how my life is just one story, one bit of a river running thru all that landscape, tangled up in everything it passes thru.

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Get distracted from my stream of consciousness reverie by the backyards of Kelso. Kids’ toys abandoned on warmer days, now papered with wet leaves. 6 swallows flying together over the neighborhood. Fog clinging to the evergreen-autumn-gold-green foothills. Sunlight breaking through the grey here and there and I feel content, thinking about my home. My book. The man I love. My dog. My family. My friends. I have everything I need and so much beyond that.

The train chugs over a river.

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