September 24, 2015

I go to the sea like others go to their gods — for peace, for comfort, for beauty, for timelessness, for renewal, for mystery, for connection to the unknown and the unknowable.  Whether on holidays, in times of sadness and grief, or of ebullient joy, the sea draws me.  Although I mysteriously lost my sense of smell in 2009, every other part of my body senses the sea as I come closer.  Perhaps it is because I was born by a sea, grew up by another sea, lived close to other seas, and retired by yet another sea.

Today the Pope celebrated Mass in the U.S.  Today Jews bare their souls, ask forgiveness for their sins, and remember their dead.  Today some Presidential wannabes argue whether Muslims should be U.S. Presidents. Although religions up to the present time divide humans much more than unite them, there is actually rather little that differentiates one from another.  A pity really that all the human race has the same basic needs for religion, but use religion to distance “us” from “they.”  But the seas connect us all.

Even though it’s a Wednesday on the first day of fall, there are more than just old, retired folks at the beach.  Why aren’t the young people at work?  Why aren’t the children in school?

I notice with some frustration that I can’t walk the beach as far or as quickly as I used to.  I climb the stairs holding onto a railing instead of easily ascending to the next level.  Ah, but it’s still so good to be by the sea.

I always want to stop at my special resting spot.  One sunny day long ago,  I fell asleep there.  In that in between of sleeping and waking, I saw the tall palm trees overhead, the green of the grass, the light blue of the sky meeting the incredibly deep blue of the water.  I was sure I was in heaven.  And so I was.

It looks much the same as it always has since then except that most of the grass is more brown than green.  The sea is filling up and California is getting drier and thirstier.

Some waves unfurl tantalizingly slowly.  Others smash their way through and crash noisily on the rocks.  Little children screech in excitement and fear as the waves get closer.  The waves roll in, the waves roll out, carrying my disparate thoughts with them on this sunny Yom Kippur day.

September 22, 2015

Tonight is the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.  The chanting of Kol Nidre draws me.  I look for the old audio tape my father made so long ago.  My aged Walkman no longer works, but I remember one other combination CD and audio tape player I can use.  I slip in the tape, plug in the Yahrzeit remembrance candle, turn out the lights, turn on the tape player, and settle into my comfortable chair.  I wait expectantly as the sounds of the shofar fill the room, and then feel a comforting sense of familiarity as the music and first words begin.

As I look at the remembrance candle, tears for my dead son, brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles fall.  These are the tears of the last branch of our Wiseman family tree; of the senior who is now older than all her living relatives.  My mind imagines me walking into Auschwitz with my friend Ruth, and the numerous relatives I never knew.  If my great-grandparents hadn’t moved to the U.S., I would have suffered the Holocaust with them.

I cannot say I’m religious, but I am very Jewish.  My Jewishness is not by choice.  It is in my genes.   My Catholic Girl Scout leader introduced me to Jewish services when she took our scout troop there.  I was so moved by the service and the singing that I volunteered for the next few years to make the tea and put out the cookies for all the oneg shabbats after Friday services.  After that, I was a regular member of Jewish teen groups and learned more about Israel and Jewish history.  I fell in love at 13 years old with a wonderful 15 year old Jewish teen in my hometown who became my husband 7 years later.

At the age of 40, I began my years of being the proverbial wandering Jew, starting with immigrating to Israel.  It was in Israel that I met the Sephardic Jews of eastern countries, the Ethiopian Jews who were then being brought into Israel in large numbers, and the Arabs both inside Israel and the surrounding territories.  A few years later, I signed up to work in a program to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews living inside Israel.  I lived for 18 months in a small Arab city called Shefaram that held within it Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druse, and one Jew – me.  That ended with the Intifada of 1988 when my car was bombed one dark night while I slept.

I loved so many things about Israel, but in the end I was not strong enough to live in the tension of daily life.  I wanted to believe that Arabs and Jews could coexist, but didn’t believe deep inside me that it would ever happen. Although I kept looking back at Israel, I left and continued my wandering years mostly in Asia.

I may have been the mother of a black child, and become the grandmother to 7 Chinese children, but the wailing words of Kol Nidre still deeply affect me.  Jewish prayers are often sung like crying.  Perhaps that is because most of Jewish history has been sad.  Kol Nidre helps me remember not only the sadness, but also the joy of being Jewish.  The Jewish New Year offers renewal and that elusive word – hope.

Tomorrow, on Yom Kippur day, I will take my thoughts and go to the sea close to my home.  The depth and beauty of the sea is the holiest place I know.

I seek out the wisdom of the old tree on this Yom Kippur evening.  The ghosts who are always with me are crowding in closer as the time of the Jewish Remembrance of the Dead comes just as my own family’s fall season of dying begins.  When is a good time to die?  Most of my family members have chosen the fall months.

The sycamore tree, here since before the Pilgrims landed, hasn’t changed much since my last visit.  The ducks and egrets, plus assorted birds lend truth to this park named as a nature preserve.  The leaves haven’t begun falling off the old tree in earnest yet.  I am pleased I can still hoist myself up into the nook in the tree where I sit.

Tonight I seek out my god, nature.  And I feel connected to it.  I am aware sitting here among my ghosts, that in age and thought, I am closer to the dying.  Not that I’m not very grateful I am alive and basically still healthy enough to do most of what I want to do.  But I feel the heavy burden of maintaining my health since healthy living is the only kind of living I want.

A friend almost my age confided that she doesn’t have anything left on her bucket list.  Nor do I.   Other than some unrealistic regrets like not becoming a dancer, my list has everything checked off.  There is some contentment to having achieved an empty bucket list, but it feels — well — finished.

Then the wisdom of the tree tells me I do have one, or maybe two items, to put on my bucket list.  Is it unrealistic to add “being a successful writer?”  But, of course, the definition of successful is elusive.  Does it mean figuring out how to publish the Chinese translation of my first book, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird?”  Is it finding just the right venue for my new book, not yet published, “Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son.”  Is it something I have yet to write?  Perhaps just writing two books was a success.  But then my bucket list would still be empty.

The old tree whispers to me — “mind-body connection.”  Yes, that’s something I want to put on my bucket list.  I have read about the mind-body connection.  I have felt it.  I believe in it.  And yet there is a depth to it that I know I haven’t reached.  It’s challenging to believe the mind-body connection can heal while health insurance, Medicare, Big Pharma all yell so hard to convince us otherwise.

A little boy visiting his Korean grandparents crawls up and along a branch of the tree.  He whines when his father wants him to come down.  I wave to the little boy bravely standing tall on his branch.  He waves back with a smile.  He’s the same age as my half-Chinese/half-Korean grandson.  Old trees connect to young children like old grandparents connect to their grandchildren.

Thank you old tree.  As it gets dark, I hug the tree, enjoying its strong, grounded feeling.  I leave with the energizing challenge of two new ideas for my bucket list.  I walk home, surrounded by my friendly ghosts.

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September 18, 2010

The uncomfortable air of death overwhelms me at the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Although it’s basically part of the Jewish New Year to atone for one’s sins, it is also a special time of year to remember the dead. By the time one reaches the senior years, the past gets crowded with dead relatives and friends. And, all the dead people in my life I remember the most coincidentally died in the fall season of the year.

Animals also mourn. I read a very moving account someone observed of a funeral that a pod of whales gave for a baby whale that had died. I also was amazed to learn when I was in New Zealand that there is a type of ant community that has a designated cemetery where it buries its dead. One of the other volunteers at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center told me that a baby sea lion once climbed into her lap, put her head on the volunteer’s shoulder, sighed, and died. And, one of my strongest experiences at the center was looking into the eyes of a dying adult sea lion. I’m sure the animal sensed it was dying, and the dignity of dying within those eyes connected me to her in her last labored breaths.
Renee Askins, in her book “Shadow Mountain” refers to a wolf named Natasha who “was driven into constant movement by some deep grief that we humans could never have fathomed” after her mate was brutally killed by hunters.

I chose to watch a DVD of “Seabiscuit,” a movie I had never seen but was told was uplifting. The story was uplifting, but deeper than I expected. Three men and a horse had suffered losses of different sorts, but came together with mutual respect and determination that eventually healed them all. Loss is inevitable and the pain of it never truly goes away, but it can be overcome.

E. B. White wrote in the last part of his poem, “Youth and Age,”
“This is what age must learn about:
The ABC of dying.
The going, yet not going.
The loving and leaving,
And the unbearable knowing and knowing.”

And so I light a candle for my brother, father, mother, son, and aunt. And for all those who don’t have anyone left to light a candle for them.

We have no choice but to accept that the price of living is dying.

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