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31 October 2008

This is the part where you're supposed to save me.

MADISON - Cha Cha I got an email from Jodi Cohen last night, the woman who invited me to come read from Life is a Verb in Madison, Wisconsin, in early October:

"I wanted to write something deep and profound about how you cried during your reading in Madison. I didn't. Or I started but I never finished. Here is what I wrote and the two poems that I was reminded of during that moment.”

When I had gotten to Madison, I had asked Jodi if she had any favorite stories in the book, because I wanted to include one of them in the reading I did there. “Yaron,” she said, “Yaron.” It would be the first time I had ever read that story aloud, and while there is much to chuckle at in those pages, there is much that reveals my own pettiness in the face of his extraordinary beauty. As I read it in that beautiful bookstore in front of all those beautiful faces that had gathered there, I surprised myself by the intensity with which I broke down, at one point unsure if I could continue, turning to her for help.

I read what Jodi had sent and asked if I could post it on 37days.

Her answer, in part:

“I was trying to write about how so many things happen at the surface and then the seal rubs up against the rock. So many things keep us intact and in place. And then, when we least expect it, we fall apart.

There was that moment (during the reading) when you turned to me and said, almost pleading, or helpless or vulnerable beyond belief, when you said, ‘this is the part where you're supposed to save me.’ In that tone of voice. With those tears. And I saw you. Held your hand. Palm to palm.

I think that bonds us for life.”

Here’s what Jodi wrote about that trip, that evening, those tears, that moment when the seal rubs up against the rock:

We spend so many moments on land.

MADISON pumpkin car What’s true is that we spent the day in the glorious sun. We spent the day saying hello hello this is who I am, this is where I live, this is what I brought, this is what captures me and makes me want to take a photo.

What I really want to say is,

There are these moments when we are revealed. There are these moments where our face powder and our deodorant and our hip red glasses and our clean counters and our eating salad one bite at a time all go flying out the window.

What I really want to say is that when people break, it happens by surprise.

So my friend Patti came to town. To read from her book. To say hello to my town. It was a heart link. A ribbon in the wind from her heart to mine. From the beginning. There are days when everyone in the world looks absolutely stunning and gorgeous to me. Days when I’m overwhelmed by the way the light dapples onto everyone and people appear so gorgeous I almost have to look away. There are moments when love beams like a laser from my heart into another human being’s heart and it stops me in my tracks. There really isn’t a way to love too much. There is no quota for loving people and being loved back. There is always room for more, like jello.

So my friend came to town to read from her book of stories about her life and living intentionally. But that doesn’t capture it. She wrote these stories for her daughters, her precious cargo. She wrote these stories as a way to say to them: here—this is what I know and learn and care about and want to leave for you. The crumbs to follow that lead from moment to moment, full of goodness and fiber.

We reveal ourselves in so many ways. When we are least prepared. When we are not looking. When we least expect it. That line, from that poem: “I told you, when people break, it happens by surprise.”

I look at people in line at the grocery store, buying lettuce, let’s say, and I think, “who is standing here with big sorrow right now?” When Don died all I could think about was that I wanted to make a kugel for the luncheon after the funeral. An apricot kugel. My heart was twisted and leaking all over my life. I was beyond heartbroken, stunned, sad, bewildered, in shock. I’d been awake for hours on end before and after he died. I was in the room when he took his last breath. I was out of my mind, literally. On another earth plane, a different dimension. Somewhere between the clouds and God and the ozone and dirt. The kugel became my sole purpose for living and being. I stumbled into the grocery store, chanting my list over and over under my breath: yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter.

And there I was. In line. With my items. Who would know, to look at me, what had just happened in the last 24 hours? Who would know from looking at the items in my red plastic basket that I’d been up close and intimate with death? That the night before, as the sun set and the baroque music stopped playing, as another Shabbat was taking place, that Don’s raspy breath got more and more spacious until Ruth leaned over, her ear to his chest, and said, ‘he’s gone.”

You never know where someone has been, where someone might be going.

MADISON - tops We continue. We buy face powder at Walgreen’s, stopping to look at the pop culture magazines on the way out. We buy lunch from the co-op deli and sit outside to eat off the periwinkle blue plastic recyclable dishes. We check email. We take phone calls. We drive around the city, noticing store signs and how the leaves are like an autumnal kaleidoscope. We talk and laugh and talk and laugh. We listen. we drink each other in. we drink each other up.

This is so gorgeous it takes my breath away. As I stand, irritated in the Piggly Wiggly line, there is--no doubt--someone very near me who is speaking their litany inside their own head: yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter.

This is true of Democrats and it is true of Republicans and Libertarians and Independents and Hockey Moms and Socialists and Communists and transgender men and women and lesbians and vegans and high school jocks and small children and that mean old woman who yelled at me in the library parking lot yesterday and unlovable people, too. All of us have pain: yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Yellow flat noodles, apricot jam, dried apricots, eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, butter. Can we not walk more tenderly amongst those around us? As Jodi taught me earlier, love as if you will be answered.

Share your grocery list with others.

Here are the two poems Jodi included in her note to me. My thanks, Bunny Moo Moo Head:


Even rocks crack, I tell you,
and not because of age.
For years they lie on their backs
in the heat and the cold,
so many years,
it almost seems peaceful.
They don’t move, so the cracks stay hidden.
A kind of pride.
Years pass over them, waiting.
Whoever is going to shatter them
hasn’t come yet.
And so the moss flourishes, the seaweed swirls,
the seaweed pushes through and rolls back,
and it seems they are motionless.
Till a little seal comes to rub against the rocks,
comes and goes away.
And suddenly the stone is split.
I told you, when people break, it happens by surprise.

–Dahlia Ravikovitch

A Dog in the Quarry

The day was so bright
    that even birdcages flew open.
The breasts of lawns
    heaved with joy
and the cars on the highway
    sang the great song of asphalt.
At Lobzy a dog fell in the quarry
    and howled.
Mothers pushed their prams out of the park opposite
because babies cannot sleep
    when a dog howls,
and a fat old pensioner was cursing the Municipality:
they let the dog fall in the quarry and then leave
        him there,
and this, if you please, has been going on since

Towards evening even the trees
    stopped blossoming
and the water at the bottom of the quarry
    grew green with death.
But still the dog howled.

Then along came some boys
and made a raft out of two logs
and two planks.
And a man left on the bank
a briefcase, in which bread is planted
    in the morning
so that by noon
    crumbs may sprout in it
(the kind of briefcase in which documents
    and deeds
    would die of cramp),
he laid aside his briefcase
and sailed with them.

Their way led across a green puddle
to the island where the dog wailed.
It was a voyage like
    the discovery of America,
a voyage like
    the quest of Theseus.
The dog fell silent,
    the boys stood like statues
and one of them punted with a stick,
the waves shimmered nervously,
tadpoles swiftly
    flickered out of the wake,
the heavens
    stood still,
and the man stretched out his hand.

It was a hand
    reaching out across the ages,
it was a hand
    one world with another,
    life with death,
it was a hand
    joining everything together,
it caught the dog by the scruff of the neck

and then they sailed back
to the music of
an immense fanfare
of the dog’s yapping.

It was not a question of that one dog.

It was not a question of that park.

Somehow it was question
of our whole childhood,
    all of whose mischiefs
    will eventually out,
of all our loves,
of all the places we loved in
    and parted never to meet again,
of every prospect
    happy as grass,
unhappy as bone,
of every path up or down,
of every raft and all the other machines
we search for at our lathes
    and drawing boards,
of everything we are reaching out for
round the corner of the landscape.

It was not an answer.

There are days when no answer is needed.

–Miroslav Holub, Translated from the Czech by George Theiner


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This is so brilliant and so amazingly true. Especially the "other dimension" part of it. I lost my father in May, and many of my friends didn't understand why I was *obsessed* with planning the service, getting out thank you cards to all the people who sent notes or flowers, etc. It was because it was the ONLY thing I could focus on at that time. To be idle and just grieve, while that would be the healthy thing to do, I for some reason was just not capable of it... I was truly in another world, another alternate dimension... SO, thanks for sharing this. :)

I'm amazed you can read Yaron out loud. I cry every time I read it, and have sent that essay to more people than any other. So profound, raw, moving, hits a deep chord.

I have an in-law I don't know well who is living with her 40+ year spouse as he is dying from brain cancer. I didn't know what to 'do'. So I sent her over a copy of your book. I hope it can be part of her apricot kugel. I'm really grateful you have given us such a powerful way to say so much to so many in so many circumstances.

i love what christine wrote in her commment: "I hope it can be part of her apricot kugel."

what great shorthand. i hope to use that now too.

thank you!

Brilliant and beautiful. Bliss, pure bliss, would be to read these poems with some of Jodi's apricot kugel. When my sis died, I sat at a red light with tears streaming down my face looking at other drivers and wondering what pain and loss they too had suffered. Also...I thought to myself once as I watched my father walk into the market, no one seeing him would know that his wife of 40 years had died two days before. Thanks for the reminder to take tender steps. We are all on this journey together.

That is a gorgeous piece of writing -- brilliant, touching, and profound.


I wish I'd had a list - it may have kept me more solidly *here*. Instead I had a strange blankness where my sister had lived the day before.

how completely beautiful. i love this post! you have made me think and feel-- again. i often think, when i'm out somewhere, there's just no way to tell what the people around us are going through at that moment in time. if we knew, i think it would just confirm the fact that we are all so much more alike than we are different.

Jodi wrote such a profoundly touching piece which so clearly illustrates our lives, in a few paragraphs. Normal stuff happens, and we take another step, and another step. Rarely, stuff happens which we cannot even begin to process, so we take another step, and another step.

At some point, we find a way to continue the story which is ours, and we never forget those who have branched into a story all their own which is not directly in touch with ours any longer...except, of course, it really is.

Thanks so much to Jodi and to you, Patti.

If the poem (about the dog) had ended any other way, I could not have stood it. Thanks to my friend Annie, who directed me to this blog.

Dear Patti,

Today I came to your pages, in part to find a quiet spot: we lost a baby earlier this year & today would have been the baby's due date. And in a very few days, it is the birthday of my father, who died 4 years ago, just 7 days after the birth of our girl-child. And here was my gift, the call to my soul so simply entitled: "This is the part where you're supposed to save me."

I'm inspired, truly, in the manner we carry our pain with us and keep on walking, yes, making our apricot kugel; knitting together the stitches of our everyday life, all the while making sense of what we can ... and then our cracks suddenly appear.

In living as deeply as I can with my three lively beings and the absolute love of my life, in revelling in the absolute breath-taking joy and drudgery of everyday life, I shall hold on to this moment, this knowing that we all share this very truth you captured. Thank you!

Oh, and please tell me that you do some Canadian forays? That we could entice you to the beautiful Pacific Northwest?:)

what a beautiful post, patti. i try to remember what people may be going through when i encounter people who are rude or inconsiderate (especially while driving). this post reminds me that anyone i encounter (even if they aren't acting in a bizarre manner) may be going through something so difficult. another good reason to extend random acts of kindness whenever the opportunity arises.

Madison is only a 3 hour drive from here, I so wish I had known about it, although I'm really not sure if I'd have had your book by then. Another time, it'll happen. Your friend's story is heartwrenching-and familiar. The first time I was exposed to death was when my 13 year old little sister died in 1976. It was beyond my comprehension how the rest of the world kept going, how could the sun still rise, and people move about as if nothing had happened, when my world as I knew it then had just been changed forever. I was truly shocked! Now I'm older, sometimes even wiser, and am still trying to learn to take in each moment. Your book is helping, the whole world needs this book!

what a beautiful, beautiful post. thank you for sharing all the bits and pieces here.

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