Washing His Bright Hands (I’ll Fly Away)

Study of Hands by Egon Schiele

Study of Hands by Egon Schiele, Austrian, 1921, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mmm, hmm. Mmm, hmm. Song’s in my breath this morning, dear heart. “Some bright morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.”

Here’s the basin, dear heart; here’s the soap, the towels. “To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.”

So, dear heart, let me take your hand. You wake? Morning time, sir. Your eyes open; good. You sleep okay? Good, good. You remember me? Mary Ann? Right, I’m your aide, here to get you up for breakfast. You hungry? Get you some coffee soon, black and hot like you like it. First wash up a bit. Freshen up, start the day out right.

Ah, this man’s bright hands. When I hold his right hand, his skin is translucent. I see through it like cellophane over one of those hollow decorated eggs. You peer inside at frost flowers, you see blue veins; you see tendons flex and stretch, bones lift and bend and twist. Each joint, a full knot, moves slippery in my hand, soapy lavender smell washing away that night-bloom sweat. Flesh at the curved edge of his palm like putty rolled between silk.

When you get to this age, all human hands come down to this: bone under silk, my hands in blue vinyl gloves holding and turning his hands, passing the washcloth over the skin like polishing silver for Thanksgiving table. Silver and mica and blue and bone. Body heat. Lavender. My eyes fall over his hands, his eyes, his winged and naked shoulder. Silence; his ragged breath; the ringing in my ears as of distant and unearthly bells.

“I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away (in the morning). When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.”

— Mary Ann Barton

The song is I’ll Fly Away (O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack) by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. The date is September 11.

Arnold Sacks: A Portrait by Summer Pierre

Oliver Sacks: An Artist’s Tribute

Taking The World Into His Arms

by Summer Pierre

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver SacksAs almost everyone knows, we lost the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks on Sunday.  His books were enormously important to me.  He had been on my family’s bookshelves for years, and had been spoken of with such reverence from my folks, that I felt I knew him before I had read anything. Then while recovering from surgery on the couch at my folks’ place, I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and immediately fell in love with essays.  It was clear from the first reading that he was a man who was deeply curious and delighted by all he encountered in the world.  I never came away from his books without feeling that the world was totally broken open to me in a new way.

I will probably re-read one of his most recent meditations on dying several times throughout the rest of my life to remember how powerful the human experience is–even at the end, which Sacks described so vividly and with love.  Like every one else, I followed any and all inklings to his failing health after his announcement in February of his terminal condition.  My husband Graham was the one who broke the news to me and was not surprised when I cried openly upon hearing it.  I said, “I don’t think there is anyone I’d rather hear more from on what dying is like.”  Graham, without missing a beat, said: “I think he would love to tell us about it if he could.”

I think of him in these lines of the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes”:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

May we all be so fortunate to be so alive and awake to the surrounding world while we are here as he seemed to be.

Summer Pierre: Self-PortraitSummer Pierre is a cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and teacher in Highland Falls, NY. You can read her autobiographical comic series called Paper Pencil Life at her blog, Studio of Summer Pierre. This post is reprinted with her permission. — MAB

The Anatomy of Breathing

Movement Modalities: Dance, Housework, Breathing

Ballerina by Robert le Madec, French, 1899, via Wikimedia Commons.If dance is the poetry of motion, then writing about dance can be a way of entering our embodied experience more fully, the way a poet enters each word of the poem. With this in mind, we might take one step at a time, paying attention to one moment of mindful awareness after the other. The pace can be slow or rapid, reverent or careless; perhaps lighthearted; certainly watchful.

What do I mean by watchful? Simply that if you are dancing, you will open your mindful eyes and observe the contents of your conscious awareness from one breath to another as you turn your right toe out and step to the side. You will also feel the way the sacrum guides your hip to rotate the leg, while your thigh opens out, just slightly, as the spine turns. The breastbone lifts the ribs and your weight shifts into the step, with the music already flowing along with your body, carrying you into another place, another step, another rotation.

And within the ribs beats the heart, nestled in the cardiac notch of the left lung, and the heart throbs between and behind your two lungs, the lungs swell with the in-breath and yield with the out-breath.

And now, can we imagine how each in-breath draws some physical elements of the world into our bodies, while each out-breath pours some physical remnants of our bodies back out into the world?

What does it mean, I ask myself, that my body is the medium for an exchange of gases between myself and the threadbare hemlock tree in my back yard? What does it mean that my body, as I drive to work in my car with the windows down on a spring morning, serves to filter the air and give it back to nourish the trees that line the road?

“Dear trees,” I would pray out loud every morning. “Dear trees, help me to keep breathing all day, no matter how fearful I am.”

“Dear trees,” I would pray out loud every morning as I drove to my new job in publishing in suburban Boston, “dear trees, you are so beautiful. You there, you raise your branches over my head, your early buds swell at the tips in droplets of pea-green, of silky burgundy, you there, your trunks so solid, your roots deep and black-barked down in the dark, roomy soils near the river, dear trees, you are so beautiful. Help me to keep breathing all day today, no matter how fearful I am when I answer the phone.”

So simple, you might say, dear trees, it should be so simple for me to answer the phone in my cubicle, to say ‘Prentice Hall Social Studies, this is Mary Ann.’ So simple, but because I am so new, and because I don’t have the training to do my job, and because there doesn’t seem to be any system to bring me up to speed in order to complete my assignments, I am aware, as I observe my supervisor’s pursed lips and scrabble through the papers piled on my smooth, putty-colored work surface, that each day’s work is not enough work. Each answer I give to my colleagues’ questions is not a sufficient answer. Each breath I take is not enough breath.

Imagine the experiential anatomy of breathing when you work in a job you love.

Now, imagine that it is many years afterwards and I am in a job I love, for which I am profoundly qualified. Imagine the experiential anatomy of breathing when you work in a job you love, a job in which it matters that you are a kind person. Imagine the way the breath is the very embodiment of taking in kindness and giving out kindness, over and over again. Not a Mother-Teresa kindness; not something superhuman, but just an ordinary, clumsy, this-is-the-best-I-can-do kindness.

I have to breathe a lot in this job I love, as I care for elderly people in their houses, old houses full of memories and things. I breathe a lot and I’m sweaty. I have to squat and pick up dropped laundry from under the bed. I have to wash my hands in the sink in the laundry room and dry them on a terry cloth towel. But each breath is enough.

Imagine how my body dances as I fold the laundry and put it away, as I step to the right, bend, pull out the drawer, press the stack of soft turtlenecks into the drawer, shove the drawer closed, and turn and step to the left again. My limbs and spine loosen, my ribs expand and the lungs open and the heart beats faster, the breastbone shifts and flows with the spine, the tailbone rises and turns me first one way, then another.

Imagine that my ribs shelter the lungs and my breath feeds the blood and the ligaments draw the ribs together in a curtain of protection.

Breathing Ornament 04Now, imagine that you drive home from a job you love, the windows down in your car, the trees receiving your breath by the side of the road. Imagine that you learn about the experiential anatomy of breathing on the job. Imagine that you see, for the first time, the prodigies of flesh within us all.

And so, perhaps, dear ones who read and write and read again, you will experience the gifts of kindness, of life, of movement, of yielding, of letting go, of falling into bed, and breathing through the night, and drawing breath again, as you rise for a fresh love, a fresh day.

— Mary Ann Barton

Glossary for this post:Experiential Anatomy,” writes dance/movement teacher Susan Bauer, “is a creative / humanistic approach using movement, touch, drawing, partner work, and creative writing to embody and personalize your learning.  One’s experiences become the basis for understanding one’s physical body and movement potential.” I liked the clip below of famed teacher Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen demonstrating Initiating Movement from the Coccyx.

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Painting credit: Ballerina by Robert le Madec, French, 1899, via Wikimedia Commons.

Link to this post: http://wp.me/p20HD7-5BK.

Another post in Movement Modalities:  Nia Dance Poem

 

How To Grieve With Challah Bread by Ellabell Risbridger

“How to Grieve with Challah Bread” struck me as a perfect expression of the complexities of family life. Grief and loss. Rituals and remembrances. New loaves braided and baked and broken at the table. All these are emblems and occasions of belonging to the tribes of our birth. — MAB

Eating With My Fingers

My grandfather is dead: I do not know how to grieve. So I make bread.

In the Bible they call bread the staff of life (my grandfather might have liked this: he liked religion), but really it’s the staff of grief. And rage, and guilt. I do not know how to grieve. I am twenty-two: my grandparents had children young, and I thought they would all die old. Older. I do not know how to grieve. I do not know how to grieve my grandfather’s passing, because I barely knew my grandfather. I tried to tell someone “he was like this-” and I came up short: who was my grandfather?

dough challah

He let me eat apple pie for breakfast. He was my father’s father. He was bald. He liked to garden. He was a teacher, and some kind of occasional preacher. He came from a village called something like Jacksondale, which…

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Isadora Duncan #29 by Abraham Walkowitz

Movement Modalities: Nia Dance Poem

Nia Dance Poem

With thanks to Karen, Maria, and Robyn

These first rare steps on the enchanted floor:
soft as sand dunes beneath your bare feet.

Words, dear words, bubbles of music:
humming sitar, buoyant drum.

Touch now, touch,
feel the ball of your foot shift the load toward the toes
as the heel lifts, a slight puff of wind — poof!

Step, sway, cross over and swivel and plant the foot,
waggle the tail, rock the hips’ intimate cradle,
oh, exactly as oceans rock,
cry in the throat as seagulls cry,
piping plovers, sand, fresh winds,

and still all around you will lift, swirl, and turn,
rise, pause, and bow down,

a whole roomful of women cresting and levitating
over the soft ocean of the enchanted floor.

— Mary Ann Barton

Isadora Duncan #29 by Abraham Walkowitz

Glossary for this poem

Movement Modalities, a new series beginning today in the Joyous Paradox blog about my search for creative ways to add more movement to my life. I’m thinking of all movement forms as potentially healing, hence the use of the word modalities, which we often see in caregiving as the way a health condition is diagnosed or treated.

Nia Technique, a movement practice whose teachers are licensed by Nia Technique, Inc. According to Nia’s website, “Nia cardio-dance workouts combine 52 simple moves with dance arts, martial arts, and healing arts to get you fit in 60 minutes — body, mind, emotion, and spirit. Nia is practiced barefoot, non-impact, and adaptable to individual needs and abilities.”

The humming sitar in the poem is a metaphor for the way the pulsing, soft-rock dance music played in my Nia class sounded to me while I was dancing. For the literal sitar of Indian classical music, see Wikipedia.

The enchanted floor refers to the soft, interlocking floor tiles used in the yoga studio where I took the Nia classes that inspired this poem. I have arthritis in my knees and neck, so I’ve been wary of fast-paced, aerobic activities that might be too high in impact for my 65-year-old body. Stepping onto the soft studio floor was a pleasant surprise. So far, so good.

Photo from Staff Favorites Best of Nia

Image credits: (Top and Middle) Isadora Duncan #29, watercolor and ink over graphite on paper by Abraham Walkowitz, American, ca. 1915, via Wikimedia Commons. (Left) Staff Favorites Best of Nia © Jeff Stewart Photography. Photograph provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com).

Note: I am not receiving any compensation for mentioning Nia or any other practice in this series. — MAB

 

Cities Are Not Empty Pages

“Cities are not empty pages,” writes German sociologist Rolf Lindner. He continues, “There are cities which are like a penny dreadful, a dime novel, stained and well-thumbed and with a garish, torn cover, while others are more like an expensive edition of a classic author, leather bound, with thread-stitching and a bookmark. “– Rolf Lindner, “The Cultural Texture of the City,” Linköping University Electronic Press, 2006.

Growing Old in East Harlem: a video about the East Harlem Aging Improvement District from The New York Academy of Medicine on Vimeo.

Dear Readers,

For me, urban life is more memory than presence. Since 1977, I’ve migrated from big-city Chicago to small-town Henniker, NH, to suburban Boston. I visit cities mostly for refreshment, these days, instead of daily needs.

Yet a film set in East Harlem, New York City, has brought me back to the jam-packed, extravagant, messy, compelling pages of the urban life I knew as a teenager and young adult in Chicago. Watch “Growing Old in East Harlem.” You’ll see the pages fill up with stories.

Thanks for being here,

Mary Ann

PS: Below is a description of the film from the New York Academy of Medicine. You can read more about East Harlem’s status as an Age-Friendly City at the Silberman School of Social Work.

“On August 31, 2010, NYAM previewed a new film, “Growing Old in East Harlem” in which seniors were interviewed about the joys and challenges of aging in this diverse, dynamic neighborhood in New York. Growing Old in East Harlem was filmed and directed by Dorian Block, policy associate at NYAM. It was produced and edited by Jonathan Mena and Jessie Daniels, both of Hunter College.

“More than 200 older adults, community leaders, and business representatives from East Harlem gathered at NYAM to view the film and to discuss the findings of a recent study of older adults in East Harlem who expressed concerns and improvements they would like to see in their community. The assessment and resulting event are part of Age-Friendly NYC, a collaboration between NYAM, the Mayor’s Office, and the New York City Council.” — NYAM, 2010

Jesse and the Typewriter Shop

Editor’s note: I took typing one summer at Schurz High School in Chicago and still remember the class fondly. Mary Maldonado and I used to walk home from class together in the suffocating heat of a Midwestern city. Sometimes I’d walk her all the way to her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her older brother, Paul, who played bassoon in my high school band. I still have my mother’s pale green Olivetti typewriter that she lugged around in her post-retirement travels from Chicago to Kentucky to Montana to New Jersey to New Hampshire to Massachusetts.  Here, reblogged from The Casual Optimist, is a touching film about father-and-son typewriter repairmen in Los Angeles. Do you have an old typewriter somewhere in the house? Do you still use it? — MAB

Related to yesterday’s post on Gramercy Typewriter Co. in New York, here’s a short film about U.S. Office Machines, one of the last remaining typewriter repair shops in Los Angeles:

(Thanks Sam!)