Monthly Archives: January 2018

January Stillness

Each December, I look forward to the frozen quiet of January.

Holiday décor goes back in boxes and the boxes go back on shelves in the furnace room. It’s a relief to reclaim the living room as adult space.

For arable farmers, at least in this part of the country, the fall harvest is put up and the spring planting is months away. Walk outside and winter seems to say, rest, try to rest.

Dogs and taking long walks have been two constants of my life. Long before I had kids, I had dogs. And before I had dogs, I walked.

I enjoy many of the trails in our parks, but hike the same one most days. Walking the same path day after day is a subtle gift. Skunkweed that fills coves in the spring is later replaced by wild columbine, which later still is covered over with fallen leaves and then snow.

For the better part of three months, when the temperatures are well below freezing, I rarely see another person on the trail. This is my reward for being undeterred by the cold. A forest muffled by deep snow when even the animals are quiet is a stark reprieve from the sensory clutter of modern life.

Until last week, this winter has been hearty, which is fabulous. The kids can ski and sled. The dogs don’t get muddy. And every night when the temperatures hover around zero, fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are exploding in their winter homes. Hooray! After last year’s balmy winter, we had to spend a fortune on flea and tick treatments for several months.

The epochs of my adult life can be divided by sets of dogs. First were Goldie and Alex, a shepherd mix and a sable sheltie. I got Goldie when I was 17 and both she and Alex died when I was 31 and the mother of two small boys.

Bruce Springsteen once said about having children, “You know, all of a sudden, your dogs are just gonna be dogs.” But those dogs adopted before I was a mother were the hardest to lose. They were my proto-children.

Next came Greta, another shepherd mix, and Hoover, my first tri-color sheltie. When young, Greta could pick off a chipmunk running up the side of a tree and shake it dead before I could holler for her to stop. Though past her prime when we moved to Akron, Greta still enjoyed darting after creatures, including bumblebees, then returning to me over and again.

As years passed, our walks became slower so Greta could keep up. One summer day, as I forged up a steep hill, I realized Greta was no longer with me. I turned and saw her lying on the trail 25 yards behind. I called to her and she looked up at me.

Greta was a smart dog and if you have ever had a truly smart dog, you know how well they can communicate. More than once, Greta woke me in the night, presumably to be let out. I’d walk with her to the door and open it only to find Hoover accidentally left outside. As he trotted in, Greta would lie back down on her bed.

That day on the trail, Greta’s eyes told me she wanted to come, but couldn’t. A dignified dog, she was also embarrassed.

I walked to Greta and helped her stand. She ambled a few paces before dropping back to the ground. Not as heavy as she’d been in her prime, she was still easily 45 pounds. I picked her up like a lamb, my arms around the tops of her four legs, her body on my chest.

I walked as far as I could and set her down. She walked as far as she could before I picked her back up. We repeated this until we crested the hill. Though she lived another year, that was Greta’s last hike.

After Greta died, I brought home Lily, my bi-black sheltie. Hoover was 9 and for the next few years, Lily kept him active. I would watch from my kitchen window as they sneaked up and chased each other around a row of privet.

“Please don’t be dead, please!” said all of us many times after Hoover, at age 12, went deaf. When asleep, he’d lie stock-still until touched, no matter how noisy we were.

That’s when Lily became Hoover’s assistant. When I’d call the dogs to come, Lily would dart to Hoover and let him know to look at me. He would, and then come running as best as he could on his arthritic legs.

I know it sounds like I’m anthropomorphizing my dogs, but dog owners understand it’s true. These pack animals work together.

Now 7, Lily’s the old dog. Angus, my second tri-color sheltie, and Dorothy, my big German shepherd, are barely out of puppyhood. It took Lily awhile to remember how to frisk. She’d lived with a senior dog for so long, she acted like one herself.

Creatures grow up and, if we are lucky, we grow comfortably old before we die.

Statistically, we know some of us will not be so lucky. Before 40, the deaths of friends are rare and often accidental. By middle age, illness, especially the Emperor of All Maladies, begins claiming a life here and there.

In Jules’ small classroom at the Waldorf School, two parents did not live to see their eldest children enroll in high school. The first died of melanoma, the second due to liver cancer. Both were in their 40s.

“To love one another, to have compassion even for those who would do us harm, that is the point.”

Sam’s 5th grade photo below mine.

I turn in my columns on Tuesdays. Before these words from my last column were inked on newsprint, Sam, my friend for more than 40 years, had been killed.

Half an hour before she was shot in the chest, she told another friend she was going home to tell her husband of 33 years she was leaving him.

To lose someone prematurely to illness or accident seems unfair. But in the end, it just is. A death like this requires volition, actively choosing to end a life. The grief for a slaying victim defies acceptance because it didn’t have to be.

Compassion remains the point.

I made the three-hour trip to West Milton, Ohio, for the calling hours. Sam raised four boys to manhood, including her stepson. All four of them stood alongside their mother’s casket and comforted more than 100 people. Sam would be proud.

These young men, their wives and children, and Sam’s parents all need endless compassion as they face the months ahead, which includes a trial.

Back home the next day, a dry snow looked like the rice cereal I once added to my babies’ applesauce. It swirled around my boots as I walked across the field to the woods. The dogs barked and chased one another, delighted to be in the park. Delighted to be alive.

Buddhist family finds joy and friendship in church choir

Those of you who regularly read this column know we are a Buddhist family. Our children learn Buddhist teachings, stories and, starting at around age 4, how to meditate. At 10, they undergo a 9-day rite of passage at a Buddhist meditation center in Vermont.

So it may surprise you to learn that Max, Claude, Jules and I sing in a Christian church’s choir.

It all started with Hugo.

He first sang at Westminster Presbyterian Church the fall 2011, his freshman year at Firestone High School. The church is also the home of West Side Vocal Academy, which has an ongoing relationship with the vocal program at Firestone. That is how Hugo came to know the church’s music director and organist, Jim Mismas.

We met Jim and his husband, Bruce Stebner, while attending a concert at Westminster. For a couple of years, we’d run into them at performances, in the store where I work or around town. What started as friendly hellos became longer and longer chats until one November Jim and Bruce invited Max and me to a party at their house. Since then, we regularly have each other over for dinners and parties.

A Note to Parents of Young Children

You are in the trenches. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you children don’t get easier as they get older, they absolutely do. And if you are lucky (and by lucky I mean if you raise them to be enjoyable, curious people), your children may one day be vibrant additions to your social circle. Exhibit A: Our big boys have their own close relationships with Jim and Bruce, separate from our own.

Hugo, whose vocal talent first was recognized by Sue Wallin at the West Side Vocal Academy, studied both with Ms. Wallin and Jim. It was Jim who taught Hugo to sight read music, an important skill for a singer. When Hugo gave a recital at Westminster last spring, Jim automatically assumed he’d accompany Hugo on piano. That’s like having David Remnick insist on editing my manuscripts.

When our eldest son, Claude, was still in college, he went to France with Bruce. A professional artist, each summer Bruce takes a group of students to the Loire Valley. They set up easels alongside the river, in villages with cobblestone streets, or country lanes. Painting all day, they break only for lunch.

At night, they eat like the French–long dinners with plenty of wine and conversation. Claude, who’s been painting for several years, sold his first painting to the restaurateur of the establishment they visited most evenings.

Back in Akron, Claude and Bruce regularly paint together.

When our third son, Jules, was scheduling classes for his sophomore year in high school, choir conflicted with biology. Learning this, Jim said, “Well, he should join the church choir.”

The Westminster choir is full of professional singers. Vocalists at Firestone who show talent and industry are honored when asked to sing with the choir. Hugo wasn’t asked until his senior year.

Jules was appropriately grateful for the opportunity Jim gave him. Every Sunday, he put on a dress shirt and tie and walked to church while the rest of us drove to Cuyahoga Falls to meditate with our Buddhist “sangha,” or congregation.

Last June, we celebrated Bruce’s birthday with small party at the couple’s home. Along with other friends, Claude and Jules were there. Hugo would have attended were he not working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leif and Lyra stayed home with a sitter.

The dinner was as French-styled as the backyard—pea gravel pathways weave through herb and vegetable gardens. After sunset, strings of lights softly illuminated the long table covered with floral tablecloths where we sat. Whether or not it was the case, my memory’s soundtrack for the evening includes Edith Piaf and accordion café music.

Departing as late as it would all year, the sunlight was gone when Jim told us he had a secret announcement.

“I’ve been making arrangements with the church, but this won’t be public for a few weeks. I’m retiring after the upcoming season. For 53 years of Sundays I’ve made music for Jesus and it’s time to let someone else take over.”

Stunned, we were all stunned. And full of food, wine and love.

“Oh, I wish I could sing in the choir your last year!” I said.

“Well, you can,” Jim quickly replied, disabusing us of our long-held notion that choir was open only to those with the voices of angels. Max and Claude also signed up that night.

Most Sundays since September, we’ve been at church by 9:15. We drop off Leif and Lyra at Sunday school and for the next hour, we practice with the choir before slipping on our blue robes and golden stoles. Then, processing two by two, we sing our way into the sanctuary for the service.

Guess what? We are having the time of our lives. The choir is a raucous bunch, many of whom are, yes, professionally trained and also graciously helpful. Beginning each week singing beautiful music with joyful friends is, well, a blessing.

But what about sitting through a Christian service?

The young minister, who one-on-one is a quiet man, gives sermons that complement our Buddhist beliefs. At the pulpit he is gentle, yet not shy in addressing important issues.

After Charlottesville, he spoke about the importance of free speech, including hate speech. But he then pointed out the pain of those who are targeted by hateful, often violent, language. We need to stand with, support, and when necessary, protect the victims of hate speech.

To a packed church on Christmas Eve, when many a pastor would try to convert the occasional visitor to a full-time congregant, Westminster’s pastor made a brave choice. Without passing judgment, he asked the crowd to consider how to reconcile believing in Jesus as the Prince of Peace with the overwhelming number of guns, approximately 300 million, or one for each man, woman and child, in the U.S.

I like this guy. And the community at Westminster Presbyterian Church. We all do. It is yet another example of how living in Akron is a gift that keeps on giving.

No, I do not believe all central tenets of Christianity. Buddhist theology also has a miraculous birth story and, just prior to becoming an enlightened teacher, the Buddha was repeatedly tempted by a Satan-like being.

Whether these are facts or allegory is not the point. Love one another, have compassion, even for those who would do you harm. That is the point.

Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday last year. Thus, we sang both in the morning and at the evening candlelight service. Hugo was home from college and also joined the choir that day. Before the morning service, a group of seven good friends clustered together for a photo: Our big boys, Jim and Bruce, Max and me.

Max, Hugo, Jules, Bruce, Claude, Jim and Holly

This column was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 14, 2018