Bearing Witness

Diary 9/12/20

My former home in the Catskill mountains was surrounded by woods. My husband and I stewarded 60 acres, but as we lived on a high shoulder of John’s Mountain, there were hundreds of forested acres above us and to either side of us. Below, leading down into the valley, were more and more homes carved into the hillsides. Scattered along the country highway, was a rural suburbia. In one direction the highway led to town and in the other, another half hour of travel by car took you to the next set of villages. Forty-five minutes away, in a small city that was our county seat, lived about 140,000 souls. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to visualize it all bursting into flames once a major fire took hold under dry conditions. The corridor of devastation would be huge.

My heart, already heavy with sorrow for the plight of our nation, now is also aching for all of my friends on the west coast. Some live in the so far safe but toxic air of Portland, OR, and some in California have survived the destruction of miles and miles and miles of forests, homes, lifeworks, equity, and livelihoods. None of the people I know have lost their lives. For that I am grateful. Some scrambled for temporary dwellings other than FEMA tents set up on golf courses six feet away from one another during the pandemic. Others moved in with adult children or are finding the kindness of other organizations to provide a roof over their heads as the unprecedented high temperatures soared. Climate deniers have met their match beneath orange skies. Again.

We are asked to bear witness in this chaotic time. It is a daily challenge to keep my compassion flowing for so many facing so much loss while staying grounded in the knowledge that I cannot take personal responsibility for changing the outcome of such forces. I can respond to them with care and concern and the small local actions that are available to me. Every aspect of our society and country and world is being affected by global crisis arising from the pandemic, climate change, and subsequent economic deterioration. The individual political leadership varies, but the issues confronting us require strength and wisdom and need for unity that is sadly lacking.

The word witness is derived from Old English, relating to the Anglo Saxon word witan, meaning “a body of wise men” and the origins of the word wit likely come from the Latin verdere “to see, to know” and the ancient Sanskrit word veda meaning “knowledge”. To witness, to see and to know, the devolution of the world as I knew it up close and personal, is a task I am called upon to inhabit. I am graced that today I am not called upon to survive immediate danger but have the opportunity to reflect and witness. Millions are not so fortunate.

May our own capacity to simultaneously stay open and grounded help support the great need for healing and action, strength and surrender, wisdom and love, in ourselves and in our world.

Fire

Fire

8/25/20 For all of my dear friends in California

They just heard

their house was spared

others still do not know

down the mountain

even the city is threatened

ashes ashes ashes

another lightning storm

a shift of the wind

What would you choose

to save at a moment’s notice?

Writing on Water

8/20/20  

Writing on Water

by Judi Bachrach

With thanks to Elaine Colandrea and Neil Dalal for languaging the ineffable

Like Hammurabi or Ashoka

we think

to chisel our dreams

our laws for moral behavior

our democratic systems

our individual life programs

in stone steles

skyscrapers, monuments, bridges

tombstones

against forever

they crumble

into rigid irrelevance





We are all born of

the same ocean

the same ocean

our liquid eyes are pools  

reflecting what they receive

the art of writing on water

adapts to constant

fluid motion

reads

the unstoppable effervescent

Intelligence of Life

Elaine Colandrea is a Continuum friend and colleague and Neil Dalal is an Associate Professor of South Asian philosophy and religious thought at the University of Alberta, Canada. They have both given me words for the poem above in each their own sphere of teaching. It was not one of those poems that fell ripe from the muse tree- nothing clicked until the last moment though the urge was swirling in the chaos of these times. There are days I am wedded to rigid stone for some kind of anchor. Then the next wave washes over me, my rocky island crumbles beneath my feet, and I am swimming again.

A Stream Part 2 August 8th 2020

I was not yet seventeen when I first met Richard in 1968 at Emerson college in Boston. Our first summer together we spent hours by the Sawkill, enjoying the secluded chamber concerts of Water Music. It was a perfect spot for romantic trysts. Rocks were moved, dams were built, and the fascination of channeling insistently moving water remained as engaging as I remembered it from my childhood. Later, he had permission to pitch a tent in the small woods and the Sawkill became his gurgling tentmate, until the constant rains later that season caused mold to sprout on everything he owned. He abandoned camp and joined me in my mother’s cabin studio, working as a carpenter by day.

When Richard and I married, visiting my family in the summers also meant spending time by the stream. We would bring our friends with us and there are photographs of all of our young wet glistening bodies as together we created the best swimming hole ever. Years later, when we bought an old farmhouse across the Hudson River from Woodstock, we brought our two daughters to the stream. By then my mother and her sister had inherited the Shady house. Squeals of delight resounded up and down the Sawkill as the girls and their friends enjoyed the delights of cold water on hot summer days. More toes were nibbled, more Indian paint applied, more efts were found and released, and the next generation absorbed the pleasures of a wild Catskill mountain stream.

Over time, it was not only the stream bed that changed. The small Shady house was sold a few years after my mother died. It was a hard loss for me and Richard. As a willing part time caretaker of my grandparents, he had often worked on the old cottage. More than the sadness of losing the house, was the stinging loss of free access to the stream that held so many sweet memories of our lives together and joyful periods of my childhood and that of our daughters.

The last twenty-five years of our marriage were spent on sixty acres that Richard and I bought in Bearsville, another hamlet of Woodstock. The only thing I truly desired when we searched for a suitable place to build a home, was that the land should have some kind of water on it. I don’t think I understood at the time just how deeply imprinted I was by the Sawkill, that it meant Home to me.

Our Bearsville property fit my ideal beautifully. Sourced above our land on the shoulder of John’s Mountain, was a small seasonal creek locally named Bearpaw Creek. There was a broad forty-foot wide shale cliff maybe twenty feet high over which the creek poured down, creating a two-pronged waterfall. During the spring and fall rains, water gushed with impressive force and in the dry summer, trickles would meander under the rocks and sink into the streambed only to reappear near springs that dripped along green beards of moss hanging from the cliff face. Winter temperatures froze all action and covered the cliff with solid ice curtains of rippling blue, glinting in the sun.

When Richard was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2016 and we understood how ill he was, we sold our sheep and horses and fostered our last dog to dear friends. We put our mountaintop home up for sale and rented a house closer to the flatlands of the village of Woodstock as more accessible to caring friends and family. In fact, the house stood just off the small country highway a few miles from my grandparents’ Shady home. Though it was not visible from this rental, that last fall of Richard’s life we took comfort in listening to the Sawkill from across the road. A quarter mile away was the Bearsville Post Office where we got our mail. There it was again, across the road, rushing impetuously under a bridge on its’ way to Woodstock.

When asked, Richard said he had no opinion about where he wanted his ashes to go after his death. “It is for you to care about, my love, as it will not matter to me.” That striking moment when my daughters and I finally held a box of dusty human remains, Richard’s remains, we gave some to his two brothers and saved a pinch for undecided future destinations. The majority we took to a low spot off the road, on the border between Bearsville and Shady. The Sawkill lay broad and flat there, and we found it an easy walk along a shallow bank to a rock extending into the main current of the stream. We three bent down together, saying part of a poem I had written, and Richard had once recorded, which we had played at his memorial. Half laughing and half crying good-bye, we tumbled the sterile crumbling dust out into the cold water for his final earthly trip down the Sawkill to the sea.

A Stream

August 8th marks my would-have-been fiftieth wedding anniversary. In September, Richard and I would have been partners for fifty-two years. A few weeks ago I began writing a much longer piece about the Sawkill stream as a piece of memoir for my own pleasure. I realized I wanted to submit it for Kendal’s magazine and so shortened it a great deal. It is still probably too long for the magazine, but I thought I would put it here in two parts.

The Sawkill

The Sawkill is a stream located in Ulster county in upstate N.Y. The banks of this stream hold the flow of my entire life before I moved to Kendal at Oberlin.

The Dutch settled the Hudson River Valley leaving behind many place names. Besides naming the Hudson River itself, countless streams and waterways flowing down the Catskill mountains often bore the suffix kill, the old Dutch name for all manner of waterbeds. The Sawkill is sourced from Echo Lake high in the Indian Head Wilderness between Overlook and Plattekillmountains. It tumbles through valleys right past Woodstock, N.Y, my hometown. It eventually flows into the Esopus river watershed and then feeds into the Hudson and on down past Manhattan into the Atlantic.

The near bank of the Sawkill was accessible to me through the field across from my grandparents’ cottage in a hamlet of Woodstock, appropriately called Shady. A mile or so up the road stood a large converted house that was the original sawmill, where a waterwheel powered the saw. A few fields up from my grandparents’ home stood a tumbled down barn- a former glass factory that used the cold waters of the stream to quench hot glass. My grandparents’ refurbished cottage was originally built to house a glass blower. My older brothers and I would meander among the tufts of grass and mounded dirt to discover glass tailings. I still have one of them, a lump of green glass sitting on my windowsill.

Getting to the stream was a trek for my little legs, crossing the country road with my grandmother, then through the field, into a strip of woods, and down the bank to reach the chilly waters. My grumbling grandfather would sometimes come with us to heave and lever boulders and rocks out of the way to make a swimming hole, bordered by a small dam. Every year the stream bed looked different due to the powerful spring snow melts that roared and boomed displacing everything in their path. Once my brothers and I were drawn to investigate such compelling intensity from a spot upstream from the sawmill house. My foot slipped down the bank and the fierce waters caught my leg. My brothers quickly yanked me back from certain doom. I pondered the stream’s dangerous nature as I squelched my way back to the safety of my grandparents.

The Sawkill was my best playmate when I was an older child and stayed overnight with my grandparents by myself. In the summer, I’d walk there carrying my grandmother’s smallest speckled blue roasting pan. The hot July smells of tiny alpine strawberries, the abundant daisies to make crowns for my head, or the sure sight of fairies flickering among the butterflies slowed my progress but eventually, the wet aroma of decaying woods and leaflitter led me sliding down the steep bank to my destination.

Once there, I shed my shoes and clothes to stand in my bathing suit up to my ankles in the cool water. I waited until curious minnows nibbled at my toes. Then I gathered my “Indian” painting rocks carried down to me from miles away. I’d search the stream bed for just the right ones. Depending on the minerals in each pebble, I could assemble a palette of whites shaded blue to green, or reds to purples, and ochres to oranges. I’d climb aboard the flattest boulder I could find and scrub the wet stones into a thick paste. First, I’d decorate my own body, face to toes, and then set about adorning the rock. When the colored mud became too dry and crackly on my skin, I’d slip under a convenient low rippling waterfall, watching the colors swirl away downstream. My rock canvases lasted forever- until the next rainstorm.

Because the far bank of the stream was at the bottom of a steep mountainside, there were no houses or any visible human activity. The Sawkill itself was below the level of the woods and fields so I felt entirely secure in my private amusements. I dried off sprawled on top of the hard, sunbaked stones and immersed my being with the sights, sounds, and smells of the stream life and woods all around. Then came the most daring moments of my day- to race against the ever moving waters alongside one bank, leaping and running as fast as I could from stone to stone, to small pebbly beach, to the next waiting rock, knowing all the while if I fell I would be scraped badly on the unforgiving rough surfaces, or worse, I could break a bone. It was exhilarating, even though the stream always won the race. I never did injure myself, and in those days, no one thought to stop me from spending hours there all by myself.

I searched high and low to find the perfect materials for my final project. With exquisite care, I’d arrange a clump of soil holding a tiny rooted tree seedling, tufts of three different kinds of moss, and small replicas of boulders and climbing rocks to line the bottom of the roasting pan. I added some stream water for pools. Overturning rock after rock in the shade I’d uncover an orange eft or salamander to become a tiny fiery dragon. Introducing him to his new home, I’d retrace my steps to my grandparents triumphantly holding my dragon in his new accommodations.

My grandmother came outside to admire him and his fantastic dwelling. Then she patiently explained that I just had time to return him to his own real home before it was time to wash up for dinner. Though I pouted and frowned, I knew this was coming. Not understanding what a salamander might eat, and unable to prevent his inevitable decline if I kept him even overnight, I brought him near enough to the stream at the edge of the woods to find his own way back. The elements of his would-be dwelling returned to the forest floor. The sun set early behind the high mountain and the Shady valley grew dim and cool at the end of my long summer day.

Thin Lines

Diary 7/13/20

THIN LINES

                        Judi Bachrach

It is a thin line

Between disappointment and despair

Between pity and compassion

Between happiness and joy

Resignation/acceptance

Depression/ grief

Words/deeds

Only by crossing the lines

do I find

they are transformative

doorways in disguise

I was so disappointed when the word came down from the Ohio governor that I could no longer see my grandson when my daughter came to visit me outdoors for masked, distanced, timed contact. Like an arrow, this further restriction punctured through a protective inner shield straight into a well of despair. Because children under two cannot wear a facemask, he is ineligible to come here. Max had already squirmed through two such earlier visits and seemed to accept I was Grandma under the mask sitting at the other end of a long table. We sang one of our standard songs (This old man, he played one…”) and I used a decorated sock as a hand puppet for entertainment when he got bored looking around at a new landscape.

When I heard about this new mandate, I didn’t know there was despair lurking inside. I fell into, “I will never…this will always…why can’t I…” kind of thoughts and got snappish and grumpy. Finally, at night, I cried as I gave into the sorrow of all this loss we keep encountering while the pandemic levels rise and fall around us. I know this is the way it will be for a very long time- working vaccines are still in the distant future and I suspect my living status in the Care Center at Kendal will be the last to experience any ease of restrictions. I am both well protected and cut off from any normal flow of intermingling life beyond my elders up and down our limited hallways and two enclosed gardens. The lack of engagement with others has been hard on everyone here.

I am so fortunate to have the option of leaving Kendal to stay at my daughter’s house for a while which will be followed by two weeks of being sequestered in my room. We have planned another such visit for August and meanwhile, my Kendal friends from the larger community are now allowed visits if other families have not already reserved the three canopied and sanitized spaces open for all of the Care Center residents. I am very grateful this is possible. Keeping in touch with my friends from the rest of Kendal has been skimpier than any of us would like. Somehow, just paying attention to managing our new lives has kept us all busy, even as our old activities together have fallen away.

As to the other thin lines I wrote out above, I have recent examples of encountering them all. I am sure you have also discovered events that triggered those responses. For instance, most acutely, is my personal understanding of long held ideas about racial justice and taking action to make them realized in the world and reviewing them to see that my words align with my deeds. The line between happiness and joy may sound like the most pleasant line to explore, but it also requires an honest self- inventory. Fleeting reasons for happiness are not the same as discovering a deep sense of joy that intertwines with all of life experiences as a basis for being human. I can say that when I have whole heartedly entered any of the doorways above, I am often graced with a taste of an underlying ever-present joy.

Lightning

Diary 6/28/20

It has been the perfect hot and humid weather for the fireflies. Most of us remember magical clouds of them appearing on summer nights when we were children. I had never seen them before on the northwest corner of my well mowed little lawn at Kendal. But Friday night, after I turned off the lights preparing for bed, I was about to lower the blind on my open window and there they were. They were not exactly blinking in a mass but there were enough to spark joy in the spectacle. I sat down on the floor beside my bed and watched their flashing dance as an invitation to meditate.

Eventually I began to grow sleepy and so lowered the blind and settled into bed. A couple of hours later I heard the growl of thunder. I rolled over to sit up and close my window in case of rain and noticed repeated flashes of light in the sky as if someone were rapidly flicking on and off a light switch. I opened my blinds to check it out and saw lightning captured within storm clouds well to our north. It was dramatic to see even with no actual zigzags of electrical discharge visible to me. In fact, the storm slowly moved away from us altogether and I saw only damp ground in the morning with a few glistening drops hanging on the leaves.

This became a metaphor for me- the microcosm of tiny lightning bugs presaging the macrocosm of lightning in a thunderstorm. The planet receives forty-four lightning strikes every second. Beyond the light of hope that I endeavor to hold within the small microcosm of my personal window on the world, there is always a concurrent release of light elsewhere in the macrocosm. This sort of light is not recorded by satellites or material instruments, but I have faith that there are millions of other small lights holding hope and taking positive action in the midst of the tragedy, destruction, injustice, ignorance, and fear that surrounds us.

I am not alone in seeing opportunity within the dark revelations that the spotlight of outrage has revealed. As frightening as the uncertainty of chaos may be, there is also an uprising of many people taking a visible stand for real change around the globe. I am well aware that the destructive ripple effects of these historical events will be with us for a long time. Substantial change may not happen in my lifetime, but then again, I also did not foresee this level of crisis due to the pandemic in my lifetime.

Because of changes in the environment, fireflies have been disappearing, but they are not gone. Addressing the losses of planetary health and freedom and justice for all people is hard and uncomfortable work. Fortunately, there is no going back to what was considered normal. The foundations for a new way forward are not gone but still there to be built upon. Meanwhile, I look towards the gradual accumulation of millions of small lights, hoping we will one day re-cover our wounded world.

Chocolate Mint

Diary 6/24/20

Today would have been Richard’s seventieth birthday. He was a year and half older than me so it already felt strange to have been the same age as he was when he died. Next fall I will turn sixty-nine, the same age my mother was when she died twenty-seven years ago. Chronological markers fixing time seem less and less meaningful as I age. Given that years lived indicate a multitude of experiences, the numbers seem less relevant as a measurement of time passing.

I must admit, numbers always seemed very fluid and slippery to me. When I was around six years old, I remember that the numbers one through twenty had distinct cartoon like characteristics. They were either masculine or feminine, had color coded costumes and a wide range of personalities. They did not like to be restricted in school. Richard, on the other hand, loved the specificity of numbers and his memory for dates tied to life experience was remarkable. Therapy clients meeting him casually on the street some ten years after they terminated their work with him, would be astonished when he asked after their ill aunt who had featured largely in their lives back then.

Richard could tell you the date that he bought that particular claw hammer, how much it cost, and which dog was sitting in his truck on that sunny day in spring as he drove it home. He was fascinated by the ages of his friends and family and celebrities that spanned his life. He was my calendar by which I could spark my memories to line up in the proper order. I apologize in advance to my children that I will not be leaving behind an accurate linear chronicle of our lives together. I can no longer tell them, “Ask Papa.”

But this date today holds a particular swirl of loving nostalgia remembering our thirteen years of celebration before children and then the following years with their own special contributions. Early on, I remember discovering his love of all desserts with chocolate chip mint flavoring. I made him just such a cake in a lamb mold belonging to my sister-in-law. He was so delighted, and I knew I had scored a hit with this boyfriend of mine in our first year together.

Today, my daughters and I will toast him with our own chocolate mint desserts shared in cyberspace. I am still in room quarantine for two more days at Kendal having spent a delicious twelve days with my older daughter and her family two weeks ago in nearby Lakewood. I have limited access to goodies right now but happen to have an organic chocolate mint cream candy leftover from a Christmas party. Together the three of us will share the sweetness of our beloved husband/father.

A Day of Gifts and Protests

Diary 6/4/20

I have received a huge gift during this painful time in our country. I fervently asked for and was granted permission to go visit my daughter and her family in Lakewood, which is about a 45-minute drive from Kendal. I said that on my return, I would self-quarantine in my room for two weeks, and I shall. That part will be way less fun than what I am experiencing right now at my grandson’s home. He turned six months old on Tuesday and I arrived here Saturday evening, just before his bedtime. But my stay here has been worth any small sacrifice when I go back to my own home.

His reaction to my coming in and sitting down in his kitchen was priceless. He was in a front facing baby carrier on my daughter and then his dad walked in after bringing in my things. There I was, the first new person inside of Max’s house for many weeks. He knows my voice and face somewhat from our daily FaceTime connections. I always make a silly buzzing trumpet sound when I see his face on the screen. He was staring at me with his mouth wide open. I sounded my “trumpet” and he looked up at his mom, then over to his dad, then back at me and grinned. Then his mouth opened up again in a little round “O” of pure astonishment. He happily stood on my lap for a bit before fussing for his bedtime. It was a deep draught of joyful reconnection all around.

For another week or so, I happily live in a baby dominated household. Dad works from home as does mom when she can grab a few coherent moments, based largely on how much sleep she got the night before. I am up by the time I hear Max’s morning baby babbling and have mostly learned to sleep through any of his nighttime wake ups. The best part of being a grandma is that your grandchild is not your total responsibility (unless, of course, you are a main caretaker as well.) At this stage his schedule consists of two awake high-octane hours followed by naps of indeterminate lengths until his bedtime. Then we share an all adult dinner and evening lasting a few hours before I turn in.

Two weeks ago, I was asked to join Kendal’s New Normal Planning Committee as a representative for the Stephen’s Care Center. The SCC includes sixty-seven residents in the Assisted Living area, the rehabilitation area, and the Jameson House for residents with more advanced cognitive impairment. Our whole committee for all of Kendal also consists of new and old residents, and a variety of staff members. As the governor of Ohio opens up nursing homes, retirement communities, and businesses, we are given new opportunities to follow suit. Having had zero cases of infection on our campus of three hundred and forty or so residents, with hundreds of staff coming and going while working in all areas of running such an institution, that is a pretty remarkable testament to how quickly we took precautions to be safe. We want to remain safe as we open up to off campus visitors, using the pool, or safely making music together.

This committee has met by zoom twice a week since I joined and we have fielded hundreds of emails asking for information, clarification, and expressing great frustration from the community as old protocols are replaced, sometimes changing on a daily basis. And we are a community of deeply caring people. A quote from our daily newsletter distributed to all residents stated that today “approximately 100 residents and staff gathered six feet apart in a silent protest, standing quietly around… (our large circular driveway) for five minutes. More gathered near their workplaces. Some carried posters with phrases like “Racism Kills,” “Justice,”, and “Black and White: ONE United States.” They joined Kendal affiliates across the system, (in many states across the country) standing together in peace related to our shared values. As an organization, Kendal at Oberlin supports peace and unity for all.”

A day of gifts and protests.

Memorial Day

With gratitude for David Benzing’s skillful gardening

Memorial Day at Kendal in Oberlin 5/25/20





I wrote to my PTSD warrior/medic brother

he reminded me to also think of thousands

of lost service men and women

I do

this hot and summery day





In the quarantined garden

of my nursing home

into the gazebo

when a sudden shower descends





Bumblebees bombed

by water-propelled gravity

shelter in place with me

ozone enriched

floral and dirt smell

dead pink azalea blossoms detach

glistening golden mushrooms of decay

snow white, fuchsia, and coral bushes remain

unfurling their glory

purple columbines stand at attention

beside tall bearded iris

fiery poppies bursting in air





The breeze picks up

percussive body slaps

puddles dumped as

canvas tarps snap over the terrace

the steady marching patter slows

wind chimes toll and toll

for thousands

and thousands beneath the ground

and thousands more civilians

who lost the viral war









Blue scraps above to the east

a persistent robin

silhouetted on the enclosing rooftop

summons an opening cloud to the west

bees return

softly ringing the flower bells

pollinating

breathing

stillness in

living and dying





By Judi Bachrach