Following the Footsteps

It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of summer. As a country, we take our folding lawn chairs and coolers out of storage and we gather at barbecues. Maybe we’ll mark the day by joining neighbors to line a street for a morning parade.

I know Memorial Day was created for us to consider sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, whose lives were lost in the service of our country. I have come to view the holiday in a broader context.

I want to take time to remember the lives of family members and strangers that have offered lessons to me or inspired me.

I don’t normally think of myself as sentimental and am not a history buff, but I can’t help but notice that my travels to all range of destinations have included a trip to a cemetery whose history is intertwined with the location.

During my trip to Buenos Aires a couple years ago, I walked between the elaborate tombs of Le Recoleta Cemetery to see the final resting spot of Eva Peron (her tomb is marked by her maiden name, Duarte).

After descending the narrow and steeply inclined streets of Monmartre, on a visit to Paris in 2012, I paid attention to the line winding around the entrance to Pere Lachaise, a cemetery whose inhabitants include Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas, although it seemed that the biggest crowds gathered to spend a few moments at Jim Morrison’s grave.

A visit to New Orleans, a favorite destination, would be incomplete without a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery along Washington Street in the Garden District. During my 2015 trip to Memphis, besides Graceland and Stax Records, one of the places I made a point of stopping by was historic Elmwood cemetery.

A slow walk among the gravestones (when I was ten, I remember my sister referring to cemeteries as marble orchards), I felt as if I was walking through time. I looked at low gravestones and read the names out loud. There were Chinese names in two public lots, probably belonging to laborers who were brought over to pick cotton or to work on bridges or railroads or other big projects. Chinese families, in Memphis, I thought. Who knew?

Besides flagged markers over the graves of Confederate soldiers and the tall monuments of wealthy, high society families, I looked for the grave of the University of Alabama’s famed football coach, Bear Bryant, and the grave of Sun Ra who, in his own way, led a revolution in music.

Here, in Chicago, I might get a history lesson by visiting Graceland cemetery, where visionary industrialist Gorge Pullman is buried, supposedly in a lead-lined coffin and a steel vault to dissuade the left leaning population from desecrating his grave. Or, I could visit Waldheim (Forest Home) just west of the city, where laborers, martyrs of the Haymarket Riot, are buried.

In the Jewish side of Waldheim, it’s not uncommon to see small black and white photographs decorate the upper corner of granite gravestones. I remember looking at the pictures and considering the dates that bookended different life spans. I’d think about the immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe; children and parents, grandparents.

Many souls came here following a dream. Many lived long lives and others only a few years. Some faced special challenges and others just did their jobs. Some changed the world (or, at least their corner of it), and others just showed up.

This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about all of them. Not just soldiers.

I don’t think it’s SACRIFICE that leads me to check out cemeteries wherever I travel, although sacrifices were made. I’m touched by the COURAGE of individuals, expressed in the choices and actions that defined their lives.

It takes courage to fight in a war. It takes courage to raise a family. It takes courage to leave home and start over in a new town or a new country. It takes courage to be an artist. It takes courage to be a complete human being, to navigate between personal interests and supporting the family and community, which may support you.

Remembering, with love and respect, the courage of those who have walked on this earth before you, is no small thing.


The Third Bottle

I hosted book group this past Thursday.

Every 6 weeks or so, a group of my girlfriends get together to discuss a novel. Whoever picks out our book hosts the gathering and provides something to eat and yes, there’s wine (We’re girlfriends, aren’t we?).

The book I chose was a novel about a young woman with anorexia -– told from her lover’s point of view.

I made a hearty meal of daube Provencal (beef stew with, yes, more wine), a pear-gorgonzola salad, mini pastries, and freshly baked crescent rolls. Perversity rules! I wanted to enjoy simple pleasures that our book’s heroine wouldn’t allow herself.

Our group consists of four women. Occasionally, a guest will show up. Core members will often invite friends who appreciate reading and de-constructing but are reluctant to commit to showing up for every meeting.

I asked our friend, Shari, to join us. Member of another book discussion group some of us were in over 20 years ago, she had to drop out when family, moving to Munster, Indiana (40 miles away), and grad school came to demand more of her time.

Via brief emails, she warned me that she would be coming late, as she was teaching a class, but was looking forward to coming.

I opened up our first bottle of red to pour a cup into the Le Creuset enamel pot that was magically transforming cubes of everyday chuck into something special. It was a large bottle and lasted through dinner and our initial comments about the novel.

At about 7:30, when we were raising our voices about choices the author made, little things we liked about minor characters, when we thought elements were introduced in a sort of contrived way, Shari arrived. We quickly got her caught up.

A bowl of stew was filled for her, a glass of wine was poured, and everybody contributed a sentence to convey an idea that was already aired.

Shari quickly jumped in, throwing in her own comments about teaching foreign students (an experience she shared with the narrator), body image, and relationships.

We took turns, following trails of colored Post-It Notes, reading marked passages out loud.

We opened up our second bottle. In between remarks on control, intimacy, grief, illness, differences between sexes, and narrative voice, Shari declared how much she missed this kind of process and camaraderie.

When the formal discussion was over, we discussed who would host the next gathering and my lady friends started to leave.

Shari pulled out her cell phone and texted her boyfriend to come and pick her up; to leave the bar where he was killing time and actually come to my home. He picked her up from the class she was teaching and drove her to my door.

On his way over, the third bottle was opened. Shari and I talked about her children, about her teaching career, about the death of her husband four years ago, and about her new boyfriend. She confided that some of her old friends were not comfortable with him, or not comfortable with the idea of her having a new partner.

We talked about some of her challenges; going to school, raising teenagers on a modest income as a single parent, how she began seeing partnership potential with the man who would join us shortly.

We talked about some of my issues with sleep and balance, my impulse to write and my need to generate income another way.

I hadn’t talked with her in so long and, more than getting updated, it was great to be in such a non-judgmental presence.

Always uncommon, I remember her circus themed wedding that included jugglers and elephant rides, which took place in the parking lot of a forest preserve. She never worried about what others might see as odd or a contradiction.

Established as a Christian artist, she always displayed very liberal attitudes about exercising personal freedom. I would not normally see these things as going together, but they were very natural and honest expressions for her. She made no apologies about either.

A few minutes earlier, as our book discussion was drawing to a close, she reached into her purse and pulled out a salami from Hickory Farms to give to me. Not requiring refrigeration, it was in a layer of heavy-duty plastic skin, making it easy to pull off a grocery store shelf.

When it was presented to me, she laughed. We both laughed. I knew she wouldn’t be hurt if I didn’t want the cased sausage, but I understood her impulse never to go anywhere empty-handed.

After her boyfriend joined us, while we talked about hockey, her parents, and their upcoming vacation, she decided to gift me with tiny vials of essential oils, which made the trip from Indiana in her purse as well, probably next to salami. She had recently become a fan, using them for relaxation and mental clarity.

Generosity, transparency, self-acceptance, curiosity and resourcefulness, a great tenacity for solving problems tempered by respect for the mysterious, for the unknowable – Shari embodies all these things.

I think she provides a mirror for me. I can see some things in her that I can see in myself, and I can see some aspects of her character that I would like to shine through me more.

Getting to the third bottle (even if no wine is consumed), a place of complete honesty and vulnerability, is no small thing.


Special Events

People have different notions of what constitutes a special event.

There are birthdays and anniversaries; comeback tours of aging rock stars we grew up with (compelling you to buy a keepsake tee).

Many people celebrate Valentine’s Day this week. And recently, business pundits and various news sources made a small fuss about the Dow Jones average going over 20,000.

Generally, we think of special events through a very personal lens. Something is SPECIAL mostly because of its personal significance to YOU.

But what about special events for the EARTH? For the universe?

Friday night, at around 9:00 in the evening, as I walked through nearby Ravenswood Manor Park, I looked up at the moon.

I heard that a snow moon was going to be in the night sky and that a lunar eclipse was going to take place.

Yesterday, I looked up the date in the Farmers Almanac. The date was tagged to host a full Snow Moon (name originating from Native Americans reference to the time of year with heaviest snows), a penumbral eclipse (which takes place in the moon orbit’s outer shadow), and the closest passing of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková in a generation.

Trifecta! Talk about special! A penumbral eclipse will only occur five times this century.

I’m of two different minds when it comes to thinking of an experience as SPECIAL.

Part of me thinks that fully appreciating what is happening in the moment is the feeling you aspire to when experiencing a special event. Looking down from an overpass and marveling at how traffic flows or noticing where birds like to rest can fill me with an unexpected sort of contentment.

In other words, I don’t need for a rare event to take place to have this feeling.

On the other hand, I like to attach significance to things. I like to make things personal.

I really enjoyed walking around Ravenswood Manor Park Friday night before the sky clouded up. I wasn’t able to see the eclipse or the comet that night, but the MOON was MAGNIFICENT!

I liked knowing that it was an event of some historic significance. I liked that my curiosity was aroused and I followed up by trying to learn more.

But I mostly liked walking under the moon. I liked thinking that it is always there. It doesn’t change, but how it is seen changes.

I liked thinking that it has been a guide to give people direction at night forever. I like that is in relationship with the tide – with the flow of water, with the flow of life even though it is nowhere near an ocean.

I liked thinking that it has inspired many songs and poems. It symbolizes many things for me; the shadow side of things – contrast, in general; how important it is to see something while considering what it is not.

So walking under the full moon Friday night was special — from the universe’s perspective and from mine.

It was unusual to have three astronomical events happen at the same time. And the vision of the moon — its fullness, the glow, the subtle ring that seemed to embrace it — made me feel indescribably happy.

Feeling connected to EVERYTHING, while taking one step at a time, is no small thing.


I got to the el station to head downtown to join the rally and march before 9:00 AM. It was easy to spot others with the same destination.

Quite a few wore pink knit “pussy” hats. Many of them carried signs.

I joked with a few ladies while we waited for the next train.

“I couldn’t bear to watch the TV during the inauguration yesterday,” I confessed. “I had root canal done.”

The information was true enough. I spent a good part of the previous morning with an endodontic specialist. The implication in my statement, though, was that I would rather have painful dental work than see the man I’ve come to refer to as the NIC (Narcissist In Chief) put his hand on Lincoln’s bible and take the oath of office.

The train car was filled to capacity within two stops of where I got on, and I am only 3 stops form the end of the line. There were young women and old hippies, gangs of gal pals and feminists of all sexes. Quite a few families made a special outing out of the occasion.

The crowds on the street were huge.   After I got home later in the day, I Googled crowd estimates. Maybe 250,000 showed up for the Women’s March in Chicago on an unseasonably warm January afternoon.

Through my post-march web surfing, I took note that there were over 150 marches around the world. People in London, Paris, Madrid, Sydney, New Delhi, and Manila (among other locations) marched in solidarity.

Led by the idea that women’s rights are synonymous with human rights, other causes seemed to align perfectly. Everything comes down to mutual respect and kindness, doesn’t it?

Along with throngs of people disembarking from trains, buses and cars, I was guided to a bridge (on Van Buren or Balbo) because there was no more room at the publicized staging area. Here, we waited until the foot traffic (the marchers) started moving.

We couldn’t hear any of the speeches from where we were…but we smiled at each other. We were glad we came.

After 90 minutes of watching the crowd expand like lungs filling up with fresh air, we started moving along a planned route. The marching route was supposed to end with a rally at the federal plaza, but this had to be canceled.  The crowd was too large to assemble there.

Very deliberately and peaceably we started to go west where we made a right turn at Wabash Avenue. A loud rhythmic chant seemed to rise up spontaneously, not amplified but very strong.

NO HATE. NO FEAR. EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE. As we marched north, it was hard not to notice Trump Tower in the distance.

Under the shadow of the el train, just beginning to realize how large a group we were, we broke into THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE. Our voices drowned out the sound of trains rumbling overhead.

Everyone had their cellphones out to snap pictures of the signs. We all wanted to remember this personally inspiring and historic day.

Looking at all the signs felt like getting to know everyone as individuals.


Other signs reflected the intergenerational aspect of the experience. Young girls, who probably hadn’t yet mastered large-scale printing, held up hand-drawn pictures of roaring grizzly bears, in homage to Helen Reddy’s classic song, “I Am Woman. Hear me Roar.

I came across a ten-year old boy, carrying a dark sign, lettered in gold marker. I AM MARCHING FOR MY MOTHER. (MY BABY SITTER, I’M NOT TOO CRAZY ABOUT).

Some slogans were tongue in cheek and political. Riffing off the THANKS OBAMA video which went viral showing Obama unable to dunk a large cookie in a narrow glass of milk, a visual metaphor for how he was often blamed for anything that was wrong, even things out of his scope, I saw a THANKS PUTIN sign.

Eerily representing the state of news reporting, referring to the size of the crowd, another sign read FOX NEWS WILL LIE ABOUT THIS.


Whether on the ground marching alongside of each other or from above – We were beautiful!

Making a quick stop at Walgreens to buy poster board and a Sharpie to express yourself before meeting up with 250,000 other souls who want to show up in the world is no small thing.