Strega Nona and the Golden Ball

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Strega Nona is an alter-ego of mine. She was a “strega”, an herbalist and a witch. A crone, nestled in  rich old Italian locale and culture, using her wisdom to help others through magic (which is my biggest aspiration right now). Being that Tomie dePaolo’s original story was published in 1975, it is possible that I read it or heard it as a child. This I do not remember. I do remember that Susanna was no longer here when my son and I began to read all the Strega Nona story books we could acquire, every night, over and over. There was the story of Strega Nona taking a vacation, which plays in my mind during the summer. Strega Nona, alone, enjoying her beach house, collecting and steaming fresh mussels. Another describes an inexhaustible harvest which Strega Nona and Big Anthony, another amazing character, shared with their community. Our favorite by far was Strega Nona’s Gift, her holiday extravaganza of magical foods and gatherings. I believe we read it every night for months, a book which can almost be eaten.

Some things I have collected from the Strega Nona stories which I particularly love:

  1. Gardens should be planted by moonlight, and carefully organized in rows (if I ever own a property with soil I should know this).
  2. Strega Nona accepts as her assistant Strega a girl named Bambolina, thus rescuing Bambolina from a life of running a bakery single-handedly for an ungrateful, selfish father who tried to hang out in cafes all day. No dice for him.
  3. Strega Nona takes a vacation after being told to do so by her grandmother and mentor, who has died and come to her in dreams. And it was a good idea.
  4. Salt water taffy. Pretty much tastes like candy, but delicious because it comes as a gift from someone visiting the sea.
  5. Not only can Strega Nona feed her whole town on holidays, she can provide everyone with delicious dreams of colossal food which keep them sated for hours after waking up.
  6. Carrots for her rabbit, corn cakes for her dove, turnips stuffed with greens and beans for her goat. This is to make them speak well of her on the Eve of the Epiphany, the one night  they can speak, but anyway, yum!

On my still intact shelves of children’s books (I have attempted to give them away, but am not ready to complete that task) is Tomie dePaolo’s retelling of an old Italian folk tale called The Clown of God, which revolves around, of all things, a golden ball. It tells of a poor boy who becomes a master juggler. In his act, he gradually adds colored balls and culminates with a golden ball representing “the Sun in the Heavens”. The juggler’s life brings him back to poverty and depletion, ultimately making his last act a miracle involving a statue of the Christ child. This book still waits on the shelf for me. I do not completely grasp the connection of this story to the story of Susanna and me, and our Golden Ball, but I know there is one, just as I know there is a sun in the heavens.

This post brought me through Strega Nona and the Golden Ball because of another of Tomie dePaolo’s books called The Art Lesson. This one is autobiographical, the story of young Tommy’s compulsion to draw and reach the age of the mythical art class in his school. Adult Tomie draws the art teacher, Mrs. Bower, with upswept hair, dangling earrings and a smock-like dress, carting supplies to art class and presenting her subject matter, obviously having been to art school herself. She is pretty much me, perhaps a bit younger, even with the same shoes.

The Art Lesson brings me to what I wanted to reference and what I wanted to say. Before young Tommy has finally become old enough to be in Mrs. Bower’s class, he has suffered some feeble attempts by his teachers to pull off a proper art lesson. They have some issues with the materials, such as flaky powder paints. One teacher, with blue-washed hair, has instructed the children to not wear down the points on the designated “school crayons”. How do you function this way, with no signs of use? What is this strange vestige of perfection, the school crayons which retain their points forever? We all had teachers who said such things.

Preservation of anything is futile. We all wear out and break. I know this every day and I live and breathe and function, while my heart remains broken. Perhaps there was an innocence destroyed when I lost my daughter, but if we live long enough we all get there. There is still the same range of emotions, things to love in this world abound, but it is not forever. You must find a way to make peace with that. Avoiding the reality of death by focusing on achievements and perfection. Futile. Trying to feel only the emotions you want to feel, futile.

A picture of Susanna sits on that bookshelf, with the children’s books I cannot yet part with, beside my bed. This picture was a Christmas gift from two friends. One put it into a beautiful frame studded with gems. The other snapped the background photo, Susanna’s name drawn in the sand, by me, to be gently washed away. We were both on the beach when I wrote it, and she saved the moment, then pasted in a photo of my baby’s beautiful face. Two nights ago, that picture fell to the floor as my significant other was coming to bed. It was undamaged, and it was not explainable in any natural way. I wonder if Susanna, or someone, has encouraged me to shape this blog. I do not pretend to understand any happenings on the other side, I can speculate but I will know more when my time comes. I just know there is another side. More to life than life. And there is magic for those who see it.

Herbs

Maybe in heaven there are fragrances. If I have a choice, I want to be able to smell the cilantro my Significant Other chops while I am falling asleep sometimes. A lover of toppings and condiments, he likes to eat late at night and meticulously cleans and separates the leaves, then gently taps the knife against the bamboo board as he chops before ladling the chicken soup I have left on the stove for him. I turn back to sleep consoled by his presence. I would miss that about earth.

This summer I planted my first herb garden (in containers, my tiny yard is cramped and paved with cement). I bought some plants and set them on Susanna’s bench. The bench was decrepit like driftwood last summer when I spray painted it pink and white. It sits beneath the window where I hang some of her angels on suction hooks. Bees have perhaps nested beneath the ground beside it. Since we have set up the Angel Tree each Christmas, the same corner of the house seems to attract flying creatures. I believe they feel the angels, the other winged beings.

The cilantro died. Firstly, we ate it down to the stems and roots. There was a driving rain one night, right after I did the initial planting, which flooded the boxes. I tipped the long window box backward to drain it and the plants tumbled out. I repaired the damage, but after that the cilantro never came back.

My prior gardening exploits were limited to mostly houseplants. I mastered the knowledge that plants will sometimes wither and sometimes thrive. This summer I experienced watching my herbs live in the elements. I started each day by looking at them and touching them. This grounded me a bit throughout a long, strange trip of a season. The chives and parsley stayed rooted as if made of bronze. The basil proliferated and made me proud. The oregano, which seemed to be going the way of the cilantro, remained green in tiny spots long enough to grow back again. I absorbed this concept of nature: things will heal and root when given time. We live and die, like they do, and given time we can grow back.

Two years ago, last April or May. Susanna has just left us and we are, all three, sleeping on the sectional sofa in the living room. We are afraid to sleep upstairs. We have little trust in this world which has robbed us. I fall asleep briefly, and I wake up choking and coughing. I change positions. I know that I am choking with fear and grief.

This feeling comes back in gradient forms.A year or so ago, I went through weeks of feeling faint and breathless which resulted in ruling out heart problems. My heart is broken, but functional. Now, as I begin to drift off at night or for a nap, there is an initial gasp for air. I never truly relax.

I believe I will always miss my daughter, all day long. Just as having children changes you forever, losing a child changes you forever again. But rather than changing you into someone who further understands life, loss changes you into someone who further understands death. My head is whirling, I experienced both in a short span of years.

Summer is over, and I will miss the solitude. I will walk further steps into the things I must attend to, and I will tend to things which help me to heal. I am healing. I believe that the loving powers of the universe want better for me than choking breathlessness. I take in enough air, enough love to know I am alive. There is more.

 

Holding Space

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My son was sitting on the bench with me at the playground, like Susanna used to do. He did not see anyone suitable to play with. Then, the little girl arrived, followed by the rest of her family. Curly dark hair in a ponytail, fluffy tutu with flats, spring in her step, about five or six. She entered in a cloud of Susannaness.
My Significant Other arrived to play with our grateful son. He struck up a conversation in Spanish with the father and tried to illicit a soccer game with the girl, who declined for more girly pursuits. But we did catch her name. It was not Susanna, did not start with S, or sound alike. This disappointed me. I wanted more illusion. I wanted to be another step closer to what used to be, even though it would not be that.
The life of the bereaved is full of paradox. My child is so clearly with me, whispering in my ear, yet her absence is deafening. My life has become a stopover for a broader journey, yet I am stuck here with years of longing ahead. Nothing is the same, but my precious son is still growing and thriving under my care. The sunny green and blue of May still fill my eyes and heart, yet part of me cowers from the magnitude of sadness which will always be there. Like life, death a mystery bigger than I can understand.
I can try to understand, and day by day I understand some things more. I think I understand the concept of “holding space”, which I never thought much about until yesterday. It is something like “saving a seat” for someone by putting your coat over a chair, but you do it while they are sitting with you. You acknowledge the space they need by covering them with acceptance and tolerance and deference to what they need to go through. This is the greatest gift to give another. This is real love, and it spans beyond time and dimension.
In my mind and heart, I build small palaces for Susanna and myself. We arrange cut flowers and spread golden tapestries and pastries stuffed with sweet pink cream. We set up lounge chairs where we will bask in eternal sunshine. The world I live in is real, but so is the goddess temple of my dreams. There is a kinder place, to hold some space. Save a spot for me, Susanna, and I will always set a place for you wherever I go.

The Wheat from the Chaff

There is no goodbye. Not in terms of Susanna. Two years ago yesterday was the day my daughter was buried during a day-long driving rain. I was hoping she would like the chapel with stained glass, and the winding pathways in the picturesque historical cemetery. We invited a clergy person who asked my son to pray for his sister and spoke some words to everyone which I do not remember. I believe he waved a censer with fragrant fumes. I hope it was frankincense, a scent which has since come to me while sleeping and become my favorite healing incense. I remember him chanting and speaking of returning to Jerusalem. I imagined a puzzled look on Susanna’s face, my daughter who lived her whole life in Brooklyn.
When it was time to leave that chapel we were asked to drop roses onto the white box. I knew no one wanted to be first, so I went up and placed mine immediately so I could go home. I rode in a limousine with family and friends as we left, but my soul had bailed and run away already. Cemeteries are for ancestors, dead people. My daughter is not there.
Everyone’s life is unique, and so is everyone’s grief. To me the ground is a place to plant seeds and sit on at the park in May. When I smell soil I feel a reverence and a deep sense of mystery. Somewhere in my consciousness I know we come from the earth, our original mother, but I can only handle scratching the surface. When I want to be with my daughter I am more likely to find her by opening her dresser drawers. This is where I have washed and folded all of the clothes I bought her. This is where I am still her Mom.
Do you know what I can say good bye to? Things I no longer want or need. Petty concerns over societal achievements. Activities I have pretended to like because I think I am supposed to. False security. Self-criticism and messages of self-doubt. The sun is slowly creeping back into my life again, and I am here to greet it however it appears as someone who is free. I am forever changed and even forever sad, but also terminally dedicated to what is real and important. “Separate the wheat from the chaff”. That line comes from the bible but I remember it from the David Lynch film, “The Straight Story”. It is a fact based story about a man, too old and blind to drive a car, who rides his tractor to see his dying brother. It takes kahunas, this life, no time to waste. But all that is worthwhile does not die.

Tilt

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In light of my recent dizziness issues I took a “tilt table test” last week. My fears about it had grown enormous, but it was not that bad.

The tilt table is reminiscent of the strap-laden plank in Frankenstein, the old film, which held the new monster as he was lifted and electrified into life. That one was replicated in the episode of The Munsters during which Herman Munster was restrained for self-control purposes while dieting. I digress.

I was attached to an IV (“just in case of emergency”), Velcro- strapped to the table and tilted to a standing position at a seventy degree angle for about twenty minutes. The same angle as the Tower of Pisa. There was even a print of the Tower of Pisa on the wall, which I found hysterically funny.

The reason I am telling you this is because it has to do with healing. My test was positive, which means that at the twenty minute point my blood pressure dropped very low. This made me feel like I was dying. My lips were sweating, my whole body (rather than just my stomach) was deeply nauseous and I fell into a huge panic and all out pain which made me scream to be put back down. Really, this part was bad, but it lasted only a few seconds. The recovery my body made instantly when lying flat was glorious. My headache was gone, I was breathing well and I felt a beautiful sense of safety and relief. I wondered if something painful had been shaken loose and released. I cannot explain this, but this is what happened.

The headache I mentioned had developed on my way to the city for the test. Lack of coffee and food, fear of the unknown, fear that I was on the brink of a fatal heart attack, fear that I would faint somewhere on the Manhattan concrete stairs or sidewalks I was navigating. My head pounded and I felt deprived of oxygen. I felt barely present. While I was in the waiting room getting permission to take ibuprofen a man walked in who looked, dressed and moved like my father. My father passed nearly a decade ago after years of heart disease. Briefly, I saw Dad in my mind and heard him say, “Don’t worry, you will be okay. This is not your time.” This was the point where I was ushered through the experience with kindness, from both human nurses and forces from beyond.

I am choosing to make this a summer of healing. My heart has been deemed healthy and the low blood pressure issue can be treated with basic self-care. I am seeing various healers. Some are medical doctors and some are healers who can talk to me about spirit and soul. I am drinking much more water (key for the vasovagal issue) and cooking healthy food. I am drawing on everything that has ever helped before. Clearing and cleansing my house, my mind. Asking my heart to open and let down the shields which have protected me for this past year. Soaking up the love that follows me, talking out loud to the bubble of love which engulfs this house I share with my two beautiful, favorite men. They love me from earth and Susanna loves me from that glorious bubble.

As I was falling asleep last night Susanna was with me for my first dream. The four of us, my family, were sitting down to claim our table and chairs on a cruise ship. I woke up a bit startled. On edge, sorting out some of the fears I live with. I needed to establish that we were all there and okay. I miss her every second, but I knew she was there. We had time, before I woke up, to get comfortable for our journey to somewhere. Every part of the course, every tilt and wave, we will be together and never alone.

If I Should Stumble, Catch My Fall

School is over. Last week I watched some of my students graduate after turning twenty one, the maximum age for people with disabilities to remain in school. Seeing one of them receive an award brought me back to a class discussion a few years ago about a Kathe Kollwitz drawing. It depicts a person swooning, eyes blackened and closed, with sets of hands ready to catch him. I had opened the image on the Smartboard (for anyone who has not been around schools lately, that is a large touch- screen computer monitor at the front of the classroom) and asked for first reactions. It was this student, the award winner, who commented that the person was dying.

“Why do you say he is dying?” I asked, having not thought of that.

“Because there are hands around him. The hands are going to hold him up when he falls.”

She was right, of course. I have always remembered the conversation because I was so surprised at how I had not seen what was happening. Death. Death used to seem a lesser part of my life than it does now. For ten months a year, I spend my days around people with extreme fragility. Fragile bones, fragile lungs, fragile immune systems. We are all fragile, all living on borrowed time. We may appear strong but we are fragile. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “We are all ships on a stormy sea. We owe each other a terrible loyalty.” I have nothing against living with a light heart, one which feels fearless and immortal, but no one here gets out alive.

Nowadays I am certain there is no real death. Kathe Kollwitz is alive in her remarkable drawings. She lost her son and her grandson, both named Peter, in successive world wars. I have just ordered her diary and letters to read this summer, and I know she was certain that there is no death, too. I am also certain (please make sense of this in the way you feel comfortable) because Susanna is with me on a daily basis. She can move things, but I will save that for another post. In her way she is especially there when I need her.

A first challenge for me this summer is dizziness. I have both lightheadedness and vertigo. The past few nights I have been awakened by my head spinning, even as I sleep with my eyes closed. There are tests being scheduled and I will search out the reasons with doctors and healers. I am trying to be like the Buddhists might be and accept this feeling as part of my path. I want it to go away. As anything going on in my life that I find displeasing, I would rather it disappear. Some things continually render me powerless. Here on Schoolhouse Earth, I can choose to learn from whatever I do not want to be there. I just read this quote by Salman Rushdie: Vertigo is the conflict between the fear of falling and the desire to fall. Although I am not sure what the fears and dizziness are, I do know I will not be alone if I swoon or fall.