“Ocean View”🌊 in New Mexico!

Photo Credit: Anne Yoken

While my sister-friend, Anne, who lives in New Mexico, was walking home from the park yesterday, she sent me this photo and she wrote, “… My ocean view. Horizon makes me feel it’s the ocean.”

Anne’s mom was my Godmother, one of the most loving influences in my life. Our families knew each other long before I was born.

Now, for sure, the horizon in the photo DOES resemble a realistic ocean scene even though the shot was taken “deep” in the desert. It is so typical of Anne’s character to find possibility in the impossibility. Needless to say, she’s a positive person, and every season in her life, she stirs up a fresh batch of homemade lemonade that tastes like sunshine. It is the perfect antidote to winter blues and helps lift most emotional downward spirals.

Of course, there’s a prerequisite, though, to making lemonade out of lemons – you need a desire first. Then you act on the motivation, and that’s where faith comes in to help carry out the goal.

No matter what difficulties Anne encountered in life, she always kept her eyes on the horizon to help level her out and not sway too far from walking an even course. In fact, whenever I found myself in Anne’s company, we rarely stared at a new batch of lemons. Instead, we rolled up our sleeves, sliced and squeezed the pulp. In the end, no matter how hot and barren our lives may have felt, we clinked our glasses before we experienced a refreshing taste of lemonade. The sensation invigorated our spirits and gave us the strength to carry forward. Today, whenever, I need a lift, I reach for her treasured lemonade recipe.

“Yes, Anne.” I wrote her back after she shared her photo, “I see your ocean view horizon, and it’s beautiful, full of life and wonder. Cheers to a future of endless possibilities!”

… Maybe I’ll visit Anne and ‘the ocean in New Mexico’ firsthand. We can walk together from the park while we finish the last drops of lemonade from our insulated tumblers, and search for angel figures and heart shapes in the clouds that can be seen, even when the weather is bad, by those who know how to look.”


Faith Muscle

Wish U: Ubuntu

Photo by anna-m. w. on Pexels.com

Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.

This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.

The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?

If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”

Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”

After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.

So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton Presbyterian Church could plummet me to the depths of despair.

Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”

He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”

Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.

The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.

It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.

(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)

In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.

I am because you are.

From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.

Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019

My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.

Faith Muscle

Renew! Refresh! Restart!

Renew! Refresh! Restart! in the morning … afternoon … evening … RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND. Faith is fluid, bursts forth like a river flowing, able to calm, cool and collect the most explosive moments and transform them into fresh beginnings. Whatever you have faith in, call upon it NOW!

Faith Muscle

Zen Men

Photo by anna-m. w. on Pexels.com

My dear friend, Bob, has been a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. He is now in his 70s. I’ve known Bob for nearly 38 years, and he is one of the influential “zen men” in my life. We met up last week, and we exchanged our usual dialogue.

“How are you, Bob?”

“GREAT!”

“How’s everything going, Bob?”

“GREAT!”

His enthusiasm nearly knocks me over each and every time. It’s as if his every living breath is channeled into his exclamation, and it never fails to wake me up in my own life. Bob is like my buzzing alarm clock awakening me to my stagnant state, to my captivity in my own head’s prison built on fear, falsehoods and frailties that feed me at the given moment.

It never fails. Bob signals me to realize that I’ve been stuck in my head. I’ve missed the day gone by, including the entire car ride that brought me to visit with Bob in the first place. I’ve missed the trees outside. The front door I just swung opened, and the fluorescent lights in dim room. The minute I notice the rosy patches of Bob’s cheeks that glow and resemble the human heart, I almost feel as if I’ve exhaled for the first time in a long time.

At the end of our zen-centric conversation when I am about ready to leave, we always say, “I love you,” and embrace gently, as we have for 38 years.

I move toward the door. The hardwood taps under the rubber soles of my ankle boots. As I swing open the door, my hand feels the glossy coat on the freshly painted wood that is flecked with grains of lint in its texture, reminding me of the imperfection in perfection. My insights give me the faith to keep up the journey as I recall the miniscule part I play in the “GREAT!” scheme of life, because I have escaped my tiny mind long enough to inspect the vast universe directly under my nose.

Faith Muscle

Have a Little Faith

Faith Muscle

BE-lieve

Faith Muscle

Have a Little Faith

Faith Muscle

Sing, Ma! Sing!

Alexandra 10/10/1925-12/29/2015

Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.

“Alexandra! Alexandra!”

She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.

Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.

And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.

For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.

Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.

Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.

For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.

The first book is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos M. N. Eire, and the second book is The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles.

In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.

Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.

When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.

“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.

Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.

I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”

The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”

And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)

The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!

But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.

Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.

Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.

“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”

“Because happiness always brings sadness.”

Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.

All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!

Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.

Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.

Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!

Faith Muscle

Ah-autumn🍂

End of the Harvest

“Garden to table” was this past summer’s theme at our household. For the first time, I experienced an abundant harvest of tomatoes, Swiss chard, basil and Thai basil, despite my brown thumb!

I also came to realize the healing qualities of soil, seeds and sun and met a few new friends along the way.

By the time August and the official days of summer winded down, cultivator and trowel in hand, I ambled into the garden. Suddenly, I froze. A small, three-inch corpse laid on the pathway. I wasn’t about to cry over a nameless bug, was I? Months prior, I tried to research and identify the insect, but I couldn’t find it’s name. Some things are meant to be mysteries.

One thing certain, as I moved my eyes from the bug, as static as the stone it laid atop, to the dried, dead tomato leaves; death was inescapable. The transition from summer to fall was a reminder.

I’m okay with that today. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown in faith the most by accepting the natural order of things. Life to death. Summer to fall, and from this natural order, out of all the massiveness, I etched a teeny-weeny place to call my own.

I scooped the dead bug, black body, gossamer wings, little head, up in the trowel and gracefully glided across the yard in wide fairy motions until I reached our family pet plot where our dear Blossom’s kittens are buried. I laid the insect gently down on a sliver of fresh dirt and peered at it in silence. I would miss the little bugger frolicking and dancing around me. All summer long, the Beach Lady kept me company as she twirled on my left, and the nameless bug floated on my right. For months, the two of them tricked me into believing I would never be alone and forever a part of moving, living things. Now, the time has come to admit, yet again, my powerlessness over another chapter’s end.

Weeks later, there are still a few, mostly green tomatoes to pick over in the cool, empty air. The end of the harvest. I pull stalks of dried, limp leaves out of the garden. As much as I expect it, the first frost will arrive and take me by surprise.

I recall one of my favorite poems, Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost.

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

The day I discovered the dead, nameless bug, day rolled into evening. The sun, with its heart of gold, had set, turning a bloody tone of purplish red until it melted into the darkened horizon.

A stir in the wind reminded me that everything is in flux, as my own breath was at that very moment. I looked around the dark yard, wondering where the last hummingbird that frequented and roamed our premises in the day and was yet to fly south, slept.

Change is in air. Yet it is always there, nothing can stay, everything is gold. One of my Buddhist friends, Bob, constantly reminds me of the impermanence of life. All troubles, he says, stem from trying to fight and conquer the inevitable: death; instead of living and appreciating life for what it is: Gold.

Faith Muscle

I AM SAM (Part 2 – the Court TV Reality⭐Star!)

Sam Grassi, Sunrise: 06-12-2003 | Sunset 09-12-2022, written in collaboration with J. Patricia Grassi

If you didn’t read Sam’s story from last week’s blog, click here

Otherwise, the blog post below is a continuation from last week:

Once Pat’s neighbor decided to sue Pat for $2,000 regarding the cat bite she endured from Sam, we were all stressed to say the least. Then suddenly, serendipity arrived in the form of a phone call from the courtroom clerk. Out of all the pending law suits, a handful of them, including hers, was chosen by the staff of Judge Judy to appear before the arbitration-based reality court show. Pat had an opportunity to take Sam’s case on the show. Whether she won or lost, the TV show producers would entirely compensate the plaintiff. If Pat, as well as the plaintiff, who at that point was working in California, made a TV appearance on the show, she would not only not owe a dime to the nurse, but get the chance to travel on an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, AND she’d receive a $250 stipend, even if she lost the court case. Of course, Pat agreed.

Fast forward, and there she was live on TV: an 80-year-old spry woman whom I was able to watch during my lunch hour in the dining area at work. Of course, I couldn’t eat a thing, only listened to my heart beating as the episode in which Pat appeared unfolded. I wanted to throw my apple at the TV the minute Judge Judy ruled against Pat and Sam. (The moral of the story is: make sure your cat always wears a collar with his or her metal rabies tag that proves the pet is up to date on his or her shots!)

Neither Pat, nor Sam really didn’t lose because the small claims court fees were paid and everyone was happy. In fact, the nurse appeared pleased that Pat didn’t owe the $2,000 claim. Actually, she had said, that was her reason for going on the Judge Judy show in the first place.

Nearly two years later after her reality show moment, Pat had decided to downsize and move in with us. Our household was down to two cats. Fran-Fran, Pat’s cat had passed away from old age, and I agreed to open the door to her two dogs, but I was reluctant to take in Sam, especially with Chervony, my own Alpha male at home. We were in a pickle, such a pickle, in fact, Pat reached out in desperation to Sam’s previous owner to take him and left him a voice message. Fortunately, he never responded. I’m quite sure, though, she wouldn’t have given him back to that man once she regained her senses. We also uploaded photos of Sam on Facebook to see if anyone could provide him with a good home. Nothing panned out, and one day Pat arrived, standing on my front porch with Riley, Teacup and Sam.

Riley and Teacup acclimated from the get-go into the two-cat household. Sam fell head over heals with Blossom, our female calico. Chervony? Wow, that was another story. Fur flew everywhere, even though we did do a decent job of keeping them both separated. Before you knew it, Sam, who was by no means an indoor cat, took off for most of the day. (We never did find out where he went!) Chervony was ruthless and would wait for him for hours at the top of the long flight of stairs that led to the upstairs deck. I could still see him, waiting patiently as if he had forever to wait, because, in essence, he didn’t have too many priorities on the list any longer in his advanced age.

The first year or two were the hardest, but the the two Alpha males adjusted and “Sam I am” seemed to have lost a lot of his muscle. Whenever Pat and I walked the dogs, the three cats followed behind, far apart, but still in the mix.

The last summer in 2020 only Sam was left to follow us when we walked. Blossom and Riley and then Chervony had passed.

In fact, we had to sneak out of the house since Sam would be on our heels meowing as if he were losing his mind.

“He’s scared we are going to abandon him,” I told Pat.

The following year, Sam stopped grooming himself. That’s when we found out he, like Chervony, had a bad thyroid, and the vet prescribed meds.

Most nights, I’d ask Pat, “Did you give Sam his meds?”

By then I had not only warmed up to Sam, but was like his second mom. I searched for him in his favorite spot on the sunny side of the kitchen. Fed him and loved to give him his favorite tuna-flavored treats. I even tried to teach him tricks that I had taught my other cats, but Sam was not about to be a trickster. He had to hold onto some of his Alpha, after all. He loved it especially when I gave the top of his nose a firm rub. Other than treats, he lived for nose rubs.

Shortly after my birthday at the end of August, Sam started fading. I sensed the closing in of the sunset of his life. He ate less. Slept more. Had difficulty walking. His trademark strut and powerfulness that helped get him to be a reality show celebrity, the I Am SAM, vanished.

“Let’s take him to the vet,” Pat said on Sunday, September 11.

“How can we? He’s still drinking. Eating, a little, right?” I broke down and delayed the inevitable outcome.

Come Monday, the 12th, there was no doubt in our minds that it was time. Boy, how many times had I gone through this with all my other pets? Usually the I AM SAM put up a fierce fight before being secured in the carrier. Not this time. He was ready, peaceful, pain-free. He lived in this house so happily, especially after Chervony passed. We are surrounded by trees and nature and, as it turned out, he really didn’t like the traffic-filled, noisy neighborhoods. He liked the tranquility, the hum and predominantly noiseless existence.

I broke down at the front door. I couldn’t take one more pet death. No more death. Fall is my grief season.

I waved good-bye to Pat and Sam behind a river of tears. Remembering, how many lives we lost through the years, but how much we gained in return. For instance, if you live with someone like I Am SAM, you truly realize just how powerless you are in his (or her) presence. You realize though, the only real powers that can penetrate the hardest exterior are love, kindness and empathy. It is what gives you the faith to carry on long enough to learn that unconditional love not only melts steel, but ceases the  roar of an engine and transforms it into a purr. In this way, the road ahead into the sunset is smooth and gentle, but harbors a few memorable bumps to keep things interesting.

Faith Muscle