Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

In Jewish tradition, after someone dies, it is customary to bring food to those left behind and to sit with them in a practice known as shiva. It shouldn’t be that surprising to find food associated with grief. Food is in its way a form of showing love and support that it may bring succor to the sorrowful. Named after a poetry quote of Derek Walcott’s, (“And I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”), the memoir Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander reads like a mixed media form of artwork. Interspersed within its pages, prose poetry sidles up against essay, reporting, and finally, recipes. In this chronicle of the life of Alexander’s husband, the chef and artist, Ficre Ghebreysus, his untimely death comes across as punctuation out of place.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture Alexander gave on Lucille Clifton’s poetry just after Kevin Young’s tome of Clifton poetry had been published. While Alexander describes writing World bit by bit and then threading it together as one story, I am struck by the poetic influences that she turned to during its writing, namely Clifton and Rilke. But also, the acknowledgements section names her editor’s initial suggestion to write this story.

When I first heard about the release of World, I knew I wanted to snatch it up immediately, both interested in how a poet would approach memoir and wanting to see how food wove into a memoir about loss. This book is an anthem of her husband’s vivacity to live. It also is a chronicle of what it looks like to come out of the fog of grief in hard won healing. Alexander comments that she didn’t want to give into nostalgia. She says of writing World,

“I believe that poets write ‘as poets,’ with utmost attention to each word, the rhythms of the writing, and its musicality.”

Her sections written in parts of one poem feature prose poetry so evanescent that it took a deep amount of restraint not to highlight the entire passage. Every word is essential.

Grief Spirit

A Tribute to Charlie Trotter

It happens like this: We do not see the thing for what it is until it is no more. It can happen so quickly: News of another person’s death distills the color and lines of the small band of people who surround your life, bringing their clarity into focus. Perhaps you pull them closer to you; you frequent your distribution of I love you’s or just keep a closer eye on them. I’m not sure what it is about death that wakes us to our senses like the sharp notes of a stiff cup of coffee kicks us into awakening. Make no mistake, death is about awakening, both ours and theirs.

I have come into this realization like the rest of us, through fits and starts. And, like those who know the particular cataclysm of the unexpected death, the one that rattles your core into a submission of gelatinous proportions, you feel another person’s pain in the new grim reality as if it might be intended for you. But, it’s not. What you can do, having worked through your own valley and cavern crawl through grief, you can say a prayer for them by imagining the moments you know: the planning of the ceremony which for those most immediately involved brings its own hollowness of pomp in the face of undesired circumstance, writing the obituary even as you have to trick your brain into compliance, dressing up for an occasion that makes you want to tear your clothes.

Through coping with death, I came to understand life. Poets naturally gravitate toward death akin to the way pigeons circle scraps of food on the sidewalk. There’s nothing more poetic than writing elegies, especially knowing that often when people return to poetry, it is because of death. Yet, I find writing humor, writing about the eccentricities we share in our living is infinitely harder to pen. And the death found in paltry poems is often as false as describing the contours of the male body without ever having seen or touched it.

Forgoing a eulogy for the living, sometimes you play into the audacity of celebrating a person’s life while they are still alive. You scrimp and save for one evening they may be waited on, hand and fork by watchful servers in an intimate dining room. You watch their surprise and delight at dining on the subtle delicacy of a peekytoe crab. You try as hard as you can to remember all the highlights of the evening so that one day you can call them back with the sharpness of focus(white tablecloths, a kitchen tour that upon leaving it forces you to pass by the Chef as if a visit to his eponymous restaurant would not be complete without it). As you leave the restaurant, any stardust of being on par with your fellow wealthy diners shakes off. You board the El, heading to your Schaumburg hotel with a full belly and merry heart of memories.

Tonight, I mourn the death of Charlie Trotter, not because I knew him, but because I keenly feel for this particular loss experienced by his son and wife. I send them my prayers, knowing all too well the sleepless nights after my own similar experience. I think of his friends in shock, unable to string together the words, he’s gone and remember making phone calls to tango students several years past letting them know their teacher was gone. It’s too easy for life to speed up and press on after the initial days of calls, casseroles and visits begin to taper off.

I may not have known Chef Trotter personally, but the wake of influence he had on so many students and colleagues will continue to carry on with so much of his presence and indelible mark. I remember an evening so long ago where, for the first time, at his restaurant, I stepped into adulthood, lavishing my mother with the luxuries outside our reach. That evening, its simple opulence, his meticulous standards left their specific impression on me. When I look to a life well lived and one that calls more out of the people around it, I think of Charlie Trotter. In this way, his thread weaves throughout the tapestry of my life and I am the better for it.

Grief Spirit


May eighth, you come without notice. After three years, you would think I would be mindful of your coming and yet you come and you take. A week ago, I greeted May, all bustle and business until it stopped me and put me in my place- the clock is ticking. You will soon be here again. I do not look forward to your visits or your interruptions, but death does that all the time, doesn’t he?

Dad, you left without notice. After three years, you would think I would be seamless and utterly stitched back together, and yet your anniversary comes and it steals joy away, even if just a little bit, even if just for a day (Write it!). The clock is ticking- how did I never hear its music?

A week ago, I bought myself flowers- blowsy peonies all flush in their fuchsia gall, almost garish in their enthusiasm. Those pom poms perked up a section of the kitchen with their cheers and thrill to be alive. Little did it seem fitting that they too might play the role of teacher. And yet, their cheer changed…

peonies falling apart

peonies petals falling

peonies another pale perspective

peonies full bloom white

peonies pink tinge




– how the color fades so quickly – how the bloom falls from the stem or how it fights to hold on until it withers in place – how little I understood then about the nature of love and about the truth of life – you, peonies caught me off guard but ready to be reminded of how fleeting the beauty of life is – and how the end is the beginning. Life and death as book ends for a love that will not fade or fall apart.

Grief Spirit

In a pickle


Being an only child, you learn early on to pay attention, to forage for details of your family’s past. You know you alone bear the weight of carrying those stories forward. You marvel at a society’s ability to pass down story from person to person, realizing that it is it’s own form of literacy and a deft art at that. As someone who’s taken by the idea of memorization- how do you truly memorize the contours of a face before you blink and the etch-a-sketch brain wipes clean?

Today, my dad would be 67.

When someone dies, you learn to switch verb tenses to a form never before attributed to that person. You fight against the “was” and underscore “is” for as long as it naturally comes out of your mouth. And then mysteriously, the “was” slips out. Simply, distance and time have eaten at your precious verb tenses like moths nibbling at a silk dress.

And the body is mysterious too. It has a special knowledge and tries to communicate outside the mouth, ascribing importance to the joints, digestion, the hips, the jaw… all of them arrows – all of them oracles.

This past week my body has been pointing to today. It has been bracing me for emotional and physical discomfit. My jaw has been clenched. My shoulders squared. Even sleep has been fraught with furrow, only made more tangible by dear Beck who’s been struggling with illness and a visit to the ER last Sunday, setting things in motion.

How do you remember without losing the edges of the thing remembered?

It’s a frightening prospect to think of the silhouette fading over time. It makes you fearful of losing all the other people in your life, makes you hold them a moment longer, talk a few minutes more, keeps them in the front of your mind as you run through your prayer litany. This way of living steeps you in fear so profoundly that you begin to buffet against what you know to be good and true. You plug your ears from listening.

But listening is key.

On Sunday morning, I ambled my way to church. I had signed up to sing, but was in no shape for it. My head, heart and body wanted to be back in bed with my husband who had slept little, tossing and turning in pain. I needed to turn things over like a battery that wouldn’t start. And unsurprisingly, the music pulled me in. It coddled and held me with the tempo and rhythm of Jeff playing the drums, the foundation being built by Adam on piano and Karl on guitar. Wil on the organ and Jason on the bass played on, reverberating something true and sure, something I could fall into willingly.

I don’t read music.

And the why is enrobed in a long story involving a baby grand piano, a teacher with a penchant for snacking whilst her 10 cats freely roamed the house and sometimes the keys I was trying to play. Instead, my way of picking out the musical path is found in listening. Sometimes the only way I feel grace and mercy is through a melody, each syllable and word working its existence out inside of me. Sometimes, the only way I can attempt fearlessness is to hear the possible avenues for harmony and strike out, knowing firm footing is best left to melody, knowing my heart races with adrenaline even when I hit the wrong note because I tried. And yesterday, I soared. And yesterday, I found myself awash in emotion and felt bruised. But I also found myself smiling at the three year old boy in the balcony, flinging his arms with the movement of the music, seeing his grin contagiously spread to the little girl next to him. They were listening with all of themselves.

My dad died 10 years after they expected he would and in my opinion 20 years before he should have. Can I change that- no. Can I accept that… I’m learning. And the tricky thing about listening is that my body is telling me it’s still grieving. It’s telling me to move on. As I get older, I find myself holding the sour and the sweet in tandem because the things which ravage us from within do not abate just because something good is happening. The sweet intersects and regards the sour.

And here’s the thing: I’m listening. Boy, am I listening.

Recently I whipped up a batch of pickled Bing cherries. Their dark red skin and flesh gave way to bursts of sweetness in the mouth. Their time span shortened by the day as the orbs softened to the touch. And I wanted to somehow draw out that goodness. I longed to keep them around just a bit longer, which is what I can relate to and what I hear from people who have lost someone they love. They /(I want):

One more hello. One more goodbye. One more hug. One more cry.

Sharing our Strength Spirit

In memory, a Peanut Butter Cream Pie

Peanut Butter Cream Pie for Mikey - august 12, 2011

In memory of Mikey,
In honor of Jennie,
people around the world today baked pie.

Peanut Butter Cream Pie.

No, it doesn’t change the fact that he was taken well before his time. No, it doesn’t change the grieving process. But all these pies baked on the same day together and given in love with like-minded words somehow remind the bakers and the eaters that life is sweet.

His life was sweet.

Art Grief Singing Spirit

Finding My Voice

SINGING- Finding My Voice

Olga once told me the worst thing you can do when you lose your voice is to whisper.

Instead, she said, you should either stay silent or try to talk normally so as not to damage the vocal chords. Clearly over the past year, I chose silence.

Just like talking about losing my voice found its appropriate time to be spoken aloud, this new season I am walking into is surprising. With the silence broken, I find myself immersed again in music and it brings joy not sorrow. Well, not every time because sorrow lingers in the corners of words and holidays.

Last week, I found myself at church singing as if no one else might be in the room. My voice has grown stronger and in that, so has my range… Olga, one of my repositories of information on all things vocal and musical once mentioned that the voices of women establish themselves in their thirties. I think it’s kind of magical really. Her own vocal transition is testament to that. The voice is an interesting animal.

In being silent from singing for a year, my voice is making itself known now.

Several Christmases ago, I encouraged my Dad to sit at the piano and play carols so we could sing them. It had been years since we had sung together. He chuckled and his eyebrows unexpectedly shot up with a “really?” This dormant part of me wanted to sing with my Dad like days of yore. And we knocked out a few songs together before retiring to the living room with the rest of the family. Singing had been our language early on and somewhere along the way we had set it aside.

In retrospect, he never knew my penchant and love of singing harmony. We didn’t have mutual songs other than those that breathed of childhood and thus tasted musty and out-of-date in my high school aged mouth. I fretted over sentimentality and he could appreciate it. I embarrassed easily when singing alone.

And then came college. And Choral Union with Ms. T. Later followed by singing more with church after church and while at college with another student group.

SINGING- Finding My Voice

The voice I have today reminds me of the three grey strands of hair poking out from the crown of my head. They are mine. They come at a cost.  See, for anyone who likes to sing (or run or swim or bike) the limitations stop us in our heads first. To climb over that wall, conquer that impasse is to forge a new path and perhaps take a risk.

As Beck says, “you can go higher than that” to me when we sing and play together, I have passed it off with a glib rebuff.  I am now scampering over those walls with delight and unabashed glee.

It feels good to sing again. Infectious. It feels good to know my Dad would want it so.

Art Grief Singing Spirit

Losing My Voice

Grief does weird things to a person.

You don’t exactly know the when or the where, but you know to take this visitor at its word, when it says it will drop by. Right after my dad’s funeral, people kindly sent emails, texts and phone calls. In the void and silence not to be filled, each word felt like a buoy to anchor me from the weightlessness that threatened to carry me deep into the sky. What is it about that levity that drains time of its usual punctuality, letting present ebb into future and blurring the lines of the past? Except for the event itself, when each detail can be recalled with rote precision.

Some of my earliest memories of my dad bring to mind two voices singing in unison. My starbird voice trilling in that high pitch special to children. His bass would carry the bottom like a firm foundation upon which the house could be built. He would take me out “driving” on his lap- hands latched onto the wheel, steering our way straight from the veering and careening he would do, I thought, so he could see Mama’s face contort into that of an irritated mime. In choir, his deep sonorous bass distinctively stood out from the lighter sopranos, mezzos, baritones and tenors. At one point in time, I equally spoke into existence my intention to be opera singer and fashion designer. My parents taught me to dream big and I did not disappoint.

I started really singing in church. Like Axl Rose. Like MC Hammer and probably scores of other singers. During high school, I auditioned for a youth singing group and made it in, though my point of pride settled on me being the only female rapper one year for choir tour. I wove the words around one another in rhythmic time and felt myself all the more impressive because of my cap worn backwards. Ah, youth. It’s no surprise really that my best friend is an opera singer and I casually took up karaoke.

The week my Dad died, I emailed Karl, our church music director, explaining I would not be able to sing with the church band, that I was in Texas, that my Dad had unexpectedly died. This was soon followed with a conversation that included the words “hiatus” and “not sure when”. Three months bled into six that later became eight and finally almost a year. I couldn’t get up the gumption to sing- it was like the song had been stolen from my mouth.

Months after his death, I would find myself alone in church, wearing a hat, feeling the part of the walking wounded. It didn’t take much to be bowled over emotionally- from the turn of a lyric, the chord progression, the violin playing pizzicato. And that surge of sorrow swept over me anew. There is nothing more mortifying than weeping in a crowd full of singers or trying to unsuccessfully stifle the growing storm. There is also nothing more humanizing. I would catapult myself out onto the street where the austere sun would shine its cold rays of sunlight upon me. The ambient street noises muffled against the backdrop of this particular kind of loneliness.

I say this because it needs to be said.

Last year, I learned a specific way to take care of myself- that it’s okay to seek out solitude and crave it greedily. It’s okay to sob because a silhouette on the street resembles that person. It’s okay to be embraced and sat with and prayed for and cooked for because sometimes your body wants you to stop and take heed.

Then Easter changed everything.

It did not bring back my Dad. It’s hard to explain in words really. It did remove some of the burden of the loss and the lungs that had felt unsturdy weeks prior began to feel stronger. I emailed Karl and said I thought I might be ready. Perhaps I could try and sing again? In his kind, gentle way, Karl told me there was no pressure. I could practice with the band and if I didn’t feel up to it, I didn’t have to stay and sing.

SINGING- Losing My Voice

The lights blazed on our faces. The microphone blared until the sound was equalized. My nightmare of crumpling emotionally on the platform during a song went unfounded. And something about losing myself in the harmonies strung around the melody, around the guitar rhythms, the hand-tapped drum beats on my thigh somehow brought my Dad closer. Music- the very thing that had for months felt too painful and too approximate to the forging and physical extinguishing of our relationship, now became sealant and mender.

I stopped singing for a year because it felt like the right thing to do and because I had no choice. My body began telling me how to interpret “take care of yourself” and once I started listening to my body, I began to find my voice again.


Star Ruby Grapefruit Mint Bars

DESSERT RECIPES- Star Ruby Grapefruit Mint Bars

If you talked to a handful of people, you’d get a handful of responses on what Easter means to them:

Eggs dunked and dyed with food coloring.

A feast with family.

Chocolate bunnies filled with marshmallow crème.

The day Christians celebrate Jesus rising from the dead.

Absolutely nothing.

My response to this would be an eager assortment of the aforementioned options, but it is one of the most important days in my annual calendar to stop and reflect on the meaning of new life and to celebrate. You can bet on joyful songs printed in the church bulletin and strum on guitar.

It is a day of celebration.

On Friday, I wrote morosely of missing my dad over the past year and the word that kept coming to me this Easter morning is “why are you looking for the living among the dead?” There is something to be said about turning into the parking lot and walking up the short hill to visit my dad’s gravesite, perched in between two dwarf trees. The first time I visited after the funeral, I expected a huge onslaught of emotion. Perhaps a wailing and gnashing of teeth. Instead, zip. Nada. I stood there staring down at a plot of just tilled earth, earmarked with a nameplate and his full regal name glinting of gold from the sunshine beaming down on it.

In the vase that screwed into the nameplate were some silk flowers rustling in the wind. The whole scene left me feeling tepid. Now I’m not prone to put off my emotions. To try and feel something dense and heavy in this place would have been a put-on, a farce. I looked down and considered the fake flowers (a sign eschews visitors from putting real ones for the reason that they will get blown away) – the carved nameplate and the coffin many feet below. As much as I wanted to feel a connection to my dad, he wasn’t there, though I still go visit as it has darling dwarf trees and a name I love etched in gold. It represents a place where I can reflect. Going or not going doesn’t make me a better daughter.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

This was a question asked of women many many moons ago, also grieving. The death of their teacher, prophet, priest and king turned their lives upside down- their fulfillment of a promise was suddenly in question. They found the tomb where his body was lain, empty with the giant stone rolled away. In their bewilderment of the missing body, there is a part of me that can imagine that initial anguish. Who would desecrate the resting place of someone you love? And yet as they considered the empty tomb, they heard this question. It completely re-oriented their perspective and experience.

We celebrated the Easter holiday with Nathan’s parents and two of his siblings. We set off for their faith community held at a local community center. For me, this was a treat I had been looking forward to. Their church is small but full of people who are genuinely glad to welcome you. Their authenticity and hospitality makes you want to come back. And on this Sunday, they had planned a potluck… Potlucks feel so Southern to me especially in the guise of a church. I had been plotting what I would bring to the table for several weeks now and had my a-ha confirmed when I bumped into new friend Charissa at the chocolate salon last weekend. She had spent time with Beyond the Plate and shared with her a recipe for gluten free Grapefruit bars.

My love for grapefruit notwithstanding, this particular pairing intrigued me. The tartness of a lemon bar with the replacement of my favorite fruit- could this be a match made for Easter? On Saturday, Nathan and I scoured the farmer’s market for the last dregs of grapefruit as the season winds down. I initially thought of trying this recipe with Oro Blanco grapefruit but their mild flavor would not have given me that tart punch you expect in this kind of bar. I selected a few Star Ruby grapefruits, longing instead for the Texas Ruby Reds from home. The juice and pulp of these grapefruits glistened bright pink after being cut open and juiced. I added the mint for a refreshing sidenote, though it’s so subtle it sure does play second fiddle to the grapefruit.

During the Easter morning service a man named Bill shared a story of living through his father’s death. I bristled a bit inside, but listened keenly as he began talking about how his father’s demise led him to a personal transformation. Our dads died around the same date several years apart. He choked up in front of this group, proclaiming that he hadn’t shared this with anyone before. Eight years later, he is changed and yet side-struck emotionally talking about this difficult time. And that’s where family comes in.

Earlier that morning, Nathan and I rolled out of bed and padded down to his family’s breakfast table. His mother cheerily greeted us with, “Happy Easter!” Nathan replied, “He is risen,” and she replied in return, “He is risen indeed!” At the table, she set before us an egg cheese casserole, still warm from the oven and currant apricot rolls. I may not have mentioned it before but his mom is quite the bread-baker in the family and turns out exquisite rolls and loaves. Don’t get me started on how quickly her nicely wrapped Stollen leftovers got devoured from our kitchen pantry after Christmas. A certain son LOVES his mother and particularly loves those rolls. This time with family around a breakfast table set the stage for the rest of our time together at church.

Once the service ended, the adults and children congregated in the cafeteria. Some adults headed back outside to tuck eggs behind flower beds, hide eggs in the crooks of the tree limbs.

The children eagerly gathered with baskets and bags, anxious to go outside and find the hidden eggs. They set off in groups based on age, the littlest tots running outside first, followed by slightly older childen and then the big kids. Watching them and the spurts of energetic pursuit made me laugh aloud remembering my own childhood and the game of egg-finding. Only in Sonoma county, one of the women mentioned the dyed eggs had come from her chickens in her backyard- brown eggs that might be good in an egg salad sandwich the day after.

With heavy baskets, the children headed indoors with their respective adults and assembled into lines for food. I stood behind Bill who had told the story of his dad and thanked him for sharing and letting him know a little of my own. I knew that story was meant for my ears. He thanked me and we talked about how speaking your grief and loss aloud does lighten the load.

Speaking of loaded, this was quite a potluck. By the time I arrived at the table, my plate had smatterings of the smorgasbord of offerings. People crowded around short school cafeteria tables and benches. We sat with a winemaker who fills truffles with pinot and joked, “Would you like to try my pinot?” – “especially if it’s inside chocolate…”

One of the women, Janice, at the church and I hit it off the first time I heard she was originally from Texas. Janice and I commiserated over missing Texas pecans. Cynthia, a new friend and I quickly hit it off talking about her many years lived abroad in France and the Chagall Musee Biblique museum’s Cantique des Cantiques room with its red canvassed walls. These people brighten my life one story at a time.

When we left Sonoma county, the weather seemed a bit more chipper. The car had a bit more zip. Beck and I left sated emotionally and spiritually from love and time spent with family. Talk about new life.




Star Ruby Grapefruit Mint Bars

adapted from Ina Garten’s “Lemon Bars” from the Barefoot Contessa

  • 1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt


  • 6 extra-large eggs at room temperature
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon grated grapefruit zest (1 large grapefruit)
  • 1 tablespoon minced spearmint
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed Star Ruby grapefruit juice
  • 1 cup AP flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For the crust, cream the butter and sugar until light in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Combine the flour and salt and, with the mixer on low, add to the butter until just mixed. Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and gather into a ball. Flatten the dough with floured hands and press it into a 9 by 13 by 2-inch baking sheet, building up a 1/2-inch edge on all sides. Chill.

Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.

For the filling, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour.

Pour over the crust and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the filling is set. The main thing here is to make sure the filling has set. Let cool to room temperature.

~ Cut into small squares and serve.




Coloring Book: January

My gift to my favorite 2-year old Dadi this year is a coloring book with a page released on the blog each month for his mama to download and print so he can color his way into the things that make up 2011. No one’s looking- you can print it out too even if it’s for your inner toddler to color outside the lines…


Around the country little Dadi, most Americans are experiencing an onslaught of snow and frost. It is part of this season and we can expect it with regularity. You, though you do not know it right now, are going through your own winter.

I can only imagine what it looks like from your almost three-year old eyes to watch the people you love sad. Maybe they are showing their emotions in front of you. Maybe you get a hint that something is not quite right, though you can’t put your finger on it. You will probably ask a question, “Donde esta Tito?” and you might find it elicits an unexpected response. The silence. The absence. These might confirm to your little heart profound loss. But here’s the thing you should know, sweet little Dadi: everyone loves you. Though winter has come, know that spring will follow and then summer.

And your Tito loves you a lot.

I had a chance to spend last weekend with you and hear you sing full throttle, when my head was turned away from you, “I’ve been working on the railroad…” We had a chance to dance to the strained tunes of “Mexico! Mexico! Te llevo en mi corazon!!”

But you still associate me with all things dulce. And I remember your mama offering a small sweet after we picked you up Friday afternoon. The biggest enticement to you with all the birthday parties marking your highly social weekend schedule, “Dadi, quieres un cupcake?”

Somehow that question makes your eyes wink with sparkle and smile. So for this month, I dedicate it to you as one of winter and cupcakes. And a lot of love.


A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

My favorite gift to receive is a book. (Hint: it’s my favorite gift to give as well.)

This Christmas, among the gifts waiting for me under the tree lay a thin package. Upon unwrapping it, my father-in-law, Bill commented, “that book is a bit old school, but it has some good insight into marriage.”

Intrigued, I decided to take it on our trip to Costa Rica. I know it seems absurd to think of me sprawled out on the beach or more aptly a hammock reading a book with the word “Severe” in its title. I scoffed at my initial bravado at bringing it along and set it aside for the earlier part of the trip.

A few days later, I picked it up again, you know, just to take a quick peek.

“A Severe Mercy” is both a love story between two people that spans the gap of life and death. It also details a friendship that borders on mentorship between the author, Sheldon Vanauken and noted writer C.S. Lewis through letters exchanged. I would be remiss to not mention that this book is also a written history of two people’s exploration into Christianity. It most certainly involves all of these elements.

In the beginning Sheldon Vanauken (Van) describes his family’s rambling estate, now a ghosted shell but he seeds it with a bit of the magic imbued by memory and specificity. You learn how he first meets Jean (Davy) and their love story begins to unfold.

Van and Davy’s love is described as a “Shining Barrier”, one that they craft and fashion to be impenetrable. He writes about the importance of sharing interests to stave off what he terms “creeping separateness”. Their intent is to keep the spring of “inloveness” intact.

And this is something that truly is tested later on in the book. (Sidenote: when I described “the shining barrier” to Beck, he made a bit of a gagging motion.) There were definitely moments where their love feels a bit heavy and syrupy but I think the premise makes sense. In marriage, you naturally want to share the things that excite you with your partner. It’s a bonus when they also end up sharing your interest too.

Here’s the thing. You know she’s going to die. I mean, aside from the book jacket description, the title “A SEVERE Mercy”, and his penning it, you know she’s going to die.

And frankly, while I found their love story at moments compelling, other times, it felt too much. What held my attention really were the correspondences with then-Oxford professor of literature C.S. Lewis and later on in the book, Van’s writings on grief.

He writes with such alacrity about the final weeks and days of his wife’s demise and the small joys they found during that period. One particular scene of sweetness involved an approved visit by their dog Flurry to the hospital room. Another scene showed him praying and talking her out of coma. As I read “The Deathly Snows” on the airplane in the middle seat, my eyes over-filled. I felt punctured with his loss. He does well to describe the separation of terms as loss and grief not being the same thing. He is experiencing “grief unalloyed.”

“But grief is a form of love- the longing for the dear face, the warm hand. It is the remembered reality of the beloved that calls it forth. For an instant she is there, and the void denied. It is not the grief, involving that momentary reality that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss. In the end one can no longer summon forth that reality, and then one’s tears dry up. But while it lasts, it is a shield against the void; and by the time the grief wanes, the terrible emptiness of loss has given way to a new world that does not contain the shape of the beloved figure.” (p. 182)

My friend Amanda has said before that when someone close to you dies, you become part of a club. And these other cardholding club members speak in ways that find resonance. I do see my grief for my dad as a cloak; it is at times heavy and burdensome- at other times, warming and soft. Does it dampen the depth of loss for him- not always, but I can’t remember what it was like without the cloak. He died eight months ago on the 8th. For someone not subsumed in mathematics, I have become an accountant of time.

Van’s way of grieving consisted of something he called the “Illumination of the Past” culling together bits of music and memories for a study of their collective past.

“I had assembled, and put into chronological order, hundreds of letters Davy had written over the years. I had the diaries and journals we kept. I had her paintings done in their various periods and our photograph album. But I had gone further than these helps: I had searched out and bought recordings or music we had liked or merely chanced to listen to a good deal in some period, knowing how evocative music is… I had all our favorite poems of the years.” (p. 192)

Our trip to Costa Rica probably meant different things to the family members in attendance. For me, it was part “illumination of the past” by getting to learn more about the man that was my dad during his high school years. His two best friends, Jose Maria and Francisco shared stories of those pivotal years. I learned about their high school band with Francisco playing drums, Jose Maria playing the accordion and of course, my dad, as captain of the band and trumpet player. He was a natural born leader… Hugging both of them and looking at them, I was betwixt seeing my dad among our happy group and sorely wanting to tell him I’d met them in person. When I hugged them, it kind of felt like hugging him.

They laughed as they mentioned escapades of cutting class to slip away to the all-girls’ school under the ruse of helping the girls’ band out. They even started their own magazine and my dad wrote poems (poems!) though Francisco claims poorly. I never knew my dad to be a poet. He never heard any of my poems. Alas.

I gained more insight about my grandmother and grandfather and the elegant parties they attended. When the past is illuminated, so much more is given to us than just that which we seek. You have to be ready for it, and I scribbled details down in my notebook as the car drove on. It makes me crave more stories, more of him because story animates memory into the reel-player of imagination.

Reading “A Severe Mercy”, there is a part of me that played voyeur. Apart from the salve and balm it gave in hearing another person coping through grief and loss, I was transfixed on the friendship between Lewis and Van. How I wanted to have a pint with Lewis at the Eastgate and talk about literature and faith with one of my heroes! Never one to mince words, Lewis’ letters reminded me of the power of the written word with scores of pencil marks detailing those pages. The art of letter-writing is not something that needs to be a lost art. Moreover, the execution of letters consisting of more than the mundane but grappling with big questions and sometimes bigger answers, this is something worth pursuing. I wouldn’t say I agreed with everything Lewis had to say, but that’s not really the point. Through the letters you get the sense of friendship-depth that cuts to the quick.

“A Severe Mercy” might speak to some solely on the grief level. Perhaps to others, it speaks on the spiritual- and for those misty-eyed romantics, pure love story. Regardless, this book might change you or turn your thoughts to ponder its truths.


valley of shadow and ash by annelies zijderveld

valley of shadow and ash – first draft 

in this valley of shadow and ash,
i quake and tremble of the forward,
the backward keening out of view.

how to move on without losing
how to let go without-

to be present and awake to life in its simplicity :
the iguana crawl, crab scuttle, monkey swing
by tail or arm, the turtle flail in sand;- her time come

how to stop time to sketch in the eyes
how to steer the wheel of time-


instead we take humble steps, we scratch
days off calendars, we light candles,

in death, the dead are whole, not fractured
fragments of bygone eras.

for a moment, we can hold all of them-
the mischievous child, high school band leader,
college student, husband, father, teacher.

for a moment our hands are full.

and then we find them grasping the shadow
of what once was, but can never be stolen or revoked.
take comfort in the permanence
of impermanence of coalescing from body to spirit
of watching the moth alight from the window into wind

by annelies zijderveld (c)


Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Candied Cranberries

May his memory be for blessing.

A year ago,  I didn’t know that Christmas would be the last time I would see my Dad alive.

A year ago, we sat around a humble dinner table decked out with Christmas finest and enjoyed a meal, a conversation, some laughs and some tears. He had come to the door wearing that dark checked flannel shirt, decked out in suspenders. My dad had begun shuffling a bit, which I didn’t think much of in spite of his being a tango instructor. I had caught his hand shaking ever so slightly at his birthday a few months prior. But again, I shelved any fears I had away.

The thing is, in the end, we want the people we love to stay with us.

I remember how gentle he’d been that evening. I remember the sound of his wife’s laughter and the ever-changing expressions that flit across his face and passed over his eyes that drove us to chuckle aloud. My mom arrived after work and the four of us lingered at the table talking late into the night. My dad was a night owl and somehow I always left too soon. He loved to draw out conversations. He loved company.

My mom does not love San Francisco in December. After one bad spell of sickness in a drafty house a few years prior, last Christmas she had refrained from visiting. This pushed my hand to make the trek down to celebrate and spend the holiday with the parents. What if…

It’s easy in retrospect to play the what-if game. What if I had gone home to visit when he originally got sick in March? What if we’d gotten a chance to talk one more time? What if… This line of questions is a circle of nothingness. Nothing gained from the asking. And so I’ve learned not to. Acceptance comes in small waves. Amazingly I never deleted the photos from Christmas 2009 off my SLR. We’ll call it laziness or perhaps premonition.

I dreaded Christmas Eve this year. Or to be more precise my body was bracing me for it. Tightness in my shoulders and back. Headaches that stretched from night to day. Lack of hunger. Sleeplessness. The list goes on. Beck is great at massage. At bringing the glass of water and Tylenol. At cooking. At wrapping me up in a safe haven of arms and legs. He’s become good at reading the signs. My boy is a fast responder.

The more time marches on, the farther I move away from my Dad. And yet… there are the sparks of epiphany.

Last weekend Nathan’s mom and dad treated Olga and I to an afternoon at the symphony and dinner at the Slanted Door. We filed into the busy lobby and up the stairs, seating ourselves for an excursion into Handel’s Messiah. Olga had whispered to me earlier in the day that Handel’s brilliance in the Messiah was how the music patterned after the words. The chorus swelled, the soloists’ voices soared and the instruments swept through the hall. We neared the familiar Hallelujah chorus, and I stood along with all of the other attendees. This act jettisoned me into epiphany. I expected disdainful sentimentality and instead found sweetness. I closed my eyes and could see a heavenly chorus singing. I could hear my father’s strong bass voice. For that moment, I understood and could envision my Dad singing Hallelujah. It brought a clutch in my throat, my eyes laden with a few tears. But this time, I didn’t feel heaviness. This time, I felt buoyancy.

In grief support group, each of us lights a candle every time we meet followed by the name of the person we are representing. When we met as a formal group up until the end of September, the rabbi would close our weekly time together with the words, “May his memory be for blessing.”

I baked this cake last week for a friend in our grief support group. He was celebrating his birthday the next day and we both understood that searing peculiarity of a birthday in a death year. My dad loved chocolate and had an entire drawer dedicated to it in his bedside table. So this cake to me is a fitting tribute (and a darn good dessert for the season). It symbolizes 2010: bittersweet and tart with sweetness rounding out the bitter.

The group gobbled it up. My dad would have probably asked for a second helping. It is somehow the perfect Christmas cake. So may yours be Merry even if the road is long and the vacancy in your heart profound.

DESSERT RECIPES- Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Candied Cranberries



Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Candied Cranberries


  • 1 bag of fresh cranberries
  • ½ cup sugar

Set oven to 375 degrees. Mix sugar and cranberries in a small bowl. Pour cranberries into pan and spread them so they are evenly coating the bottom of pan. Cook for 10 minutes. Remove and stir gently. Then cook for five more minutes. Let the candied cranberries cool. Then spoon them onto the chocolate cake.


  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped up
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, chopped up
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • 3 eggs

Cut parchment to fit the bottom of a round cake pan. Swab the parchment with butter to ensure ease of removal from pan. Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler over simmering water. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and then whisk in the sugar until combined. Next, whisk in the eggs. Add the cocoa powder and stir until just combined. Pour batter into pan and bake in center of oven, set at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until it has a thin crust atop. Once finished, cool for five minutes and then flip the cake pan onto your cake stand.