Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

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I am a closet introvert.

I was voted "friendliest" in my high school graduating class of 400.  When I  participated in the high school Junior Miss pageant, no one commented on the performance of my endlessly rehearsed piano piece played in the talent section. But many people commented on how natural I looked on stage as I thanked the pageant producers and handed out flowers to our coaches. By eighteen I had carefully observed and adopted the survival skills of extroversion.  I went on to major in journalism in college, become a reporter, then a trainer and finally the executive director of a marketing certification program.

Answers to the Meyers-Briggs personality test landed me squarely in the "extrovert" category. 

It took me awhile to figure out that my leaning toward extroversion came to me as a survival skill in an extroverted world.  Susan Cain's book gave me courage to believe I will not only survive, but thrive, as I continue to unleash my introverted self.

Though I found the entire book to be thoughtful, well researched and inspirational, the section about "highly sensitive" people showed me that what Western culture considers a weakness, should, instead, be considered a strength.

Cain tells the story of a psychologist who was described by an associate as "highly sensitive." "It was as if these two words described her mysterious failing."

I feel that way all the time. People who know me always tell me that "I'm too sensitive." I believed them for a long time and tried to toughen up my hide. But in all situations, that approach made me miserable and unsatisfied.

The psychologist Cain wrote about decided to explore the inner lives of thirty-nine people who described themselves as being either introverted or easily overwhelmed by stimulation. Says Cain, "She asked them about the movies they liked, their first memories, relationships with parents, friendships, love lives, creative activities, philosophical and religious views. Based on the interviews she created a voluminous questionnaire that she gave to several large groups of people. Then she boiled their responses down to a constellation of twenty-seven attributes. She named people who embodied these attributes "highly sensitives." 

Here's a few of the insights her researched showed.  The highly sensitive tend to:

be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic

dislike small talk

describe themselves as creative or intuitive

dream vividly and can often recall their dreams the next day

love music, nature, art, physical beauty

feel exceptionally strong emotions

process information about their environments unusually deeply

be highly empathic (as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people's emotions)

It's taken many years for me to recognize and trust these aspects of my personality. But it changed my life. I stopped apologizing for my penchant to stay home and read a book, or write, or knit, or paint. I learned that the experiences which I find most fulfilling and interesting require a great deal of solitude. I learned to feel lonely and to enjoy that loneliness for what it allowed me to create. I learned the satisfaction of simply listening to my own reactions to the world, my expressions and creations.

I have accepted the freedom and discovered the benefits of invisibility.

Introverts have such a well-honed negative reputation as bores. And yet, they might be the most interesting people in the room. Whether in a classroom of children, a family meal, or a boardroom of executives, the extroverts will be heard, but the introverts will likely have the truly thought-provoking ideas.

Like Susan Cain's. But will it be only introverts who read her book?

Being Mortal

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About a month ago my mother had a doctor's appointment because she was feeling fatigued. Actually, she had a cluster of symptoms. It was difficult even for the doctor to tell whether they were related or not. We went to the doctor's office for an exam and then, as directed, over the the lab to have blood drawn, then on to the hospital for a CAT scan.

The PA called the next day with the results. Inconclusive, she said, could we go back to the lab and have blood drawn again and then come to her office later that afternoon.

Thus began three weeks of diagnostic tests which ended with two days in the hospital, with apparently, little effect, except to lift her hemoglobin levels to within AMA standards.

That same week a friend gave me Atul Gawande's book and I read it in a weekend. It seemed to be tracking with my mother's life and raised so many issues for me about her health, her well-being, and the heart wrenching challenges of making quality of life and length of life decisions.

In this book, Gawande took me beyond the apparent concerns of aging such as daily living skills and socialization. He peers one step deeper into the soul to take a look at what makes life, at any age, but particularly toward the end, have a quality and a meaning. 

I ponder how to best support my mom. I ponder what type of medical intervention is necessary. My mother has always been conscientious about her health. I have memories, when I could not have been more than four or five, of lying on the floor with her doing excerises to the Jack LaLane show on TV. She always ate well and exercised. The only medications she took were for short term issues.

It's a slippery slope," she'd warn me about medication. "You start on one, and then you need another one for the side effects and down you go," she would say. We didn't know she was being prophetic. After a minor heart attack she was prescribed a blood thinner. But the blood thinner caused irritation to her stomach lining so she was prescribed another medication to lower her stomach acid. And so it begins....

A friend just told me that when his brother, asked him to help with his mother's care, he learned that she was on seventeen medications.  To me, that's absurd. I ponder the question, with each appointment and hospital stay, will this improve her quality of life? 

Here's a few more things that Gawande is helping me think about.

Purpose

If psychology is right and having purpose can be one of the most meaningful aspects of life, how do I help her continue to find purpose in her days when her functioning continues to be limited? And how do I have that conversation with a woman for whom purpose has always been husband and family? Her husband has passed, and her expansive family is without need of her participation (much). 

"In 1998, a Harvard philosopher named Josiah Royce wrote a book with the title The Philosophy of Loyalty. Royce was not concerned with the trials of aging.  But he was concerned with a puzzle that is fundamental to anyone contemplating his or her mortality.

"Royce wanted to understand why simply existing - why being merely housed and fed and safe and alive - seems empty and meaningless to us. What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile?

"The answer, he believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was, to him, an intrinsic human need.  The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small (a building project, the care of a pet). The important thing was that in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning."

My mother has, to date, enjoyed exercise class and Bible study and her weekly routine and housekeeping. But as her capacity for activity decreases, can I help her to define her purpose? 

Autonomy

My mother likes her routine at least as much as the next senior. She likes to be in control of what and when she eats. She likes to go to sleep when she wants to and wake up when she wants to and have her hair cut and colored regularly. She has created a perfect square mile radius from her home that she drives which includes her church, the grocery store, her physician, her hair salon and her exercise club.  It works. But lately she's been asking me to take her to doctor's appointments. She doesn't always understand everything they tell her. 

Gawande points out our inherent  dependence on others and that the amount of freedom you have in your life is not the  measure of the worth of your life.  And yet, he says...

"The late, great philosopher Ronald Dworkin recognized that there is a second, more compelling sense of autonomy.  Whatever the limits and travails we face, we want to retain the autonomy - the freedom - to be the authors of our lives.  This is the very marrow of being human. As Dworkin wrote in his ...essay on the subject, 'The value of autonomy...lies in the scheme of responsibility it creates: autonomy makes each of us responsible for shaping his own life according to some coherent and distinctive sense of character, conviction, and interest.  It allows us to lead our own lives rather than be led along them, so that each of us can be, to the extend such a scheme of rights can make this possible, what he has made of himself.'

"All we ask," suggests Gawande, " is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story."

But there have to be compromises. Yes, mom can still make her own doctor's appointments, but I can't twist my schedule around to fit the doctors' schedules. Instead, I give her a list of dates that I am available (much easier that a list of dates that I am not available), and we communicate. As best we can.  The challenge that I see is to allow us both to  have our autonomy as much as possible as we work out this new interdependent normal.

Safety V Quality

What is the balance, I ask daily, of safety and happiness for my mom? Perhaps she would be safer in an independent living situation where people kept and eye on her and she could make choices about cooking and socializing that were more accessible to her. But would she be happy?  Gawande says "so this is the way it unfolds...our elderly are left with a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about."

At what point would that be my mom's choice? Would it ever be her choice? And how do we make decisions that balance safety concerns with quality of life issues?

Moments and Memories

The quality of life piece doesn't have to be complicated. Most seniors, marketing aside, aren't looking for exotic trips and entrepreneurial opportunities. "As our time winds down," Gawande says, "we all seek comfort in simple pleasures - companionship, everyday routines, the taste of good food, the warmths of sunlight on our faces. We become less interested in the rewards of achieving and accumulating, and more interested in the rewards of simply being.  Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy.  And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living feel meaningful and worthwhile."

Maybe that's why I see $5 checks written out to the March of Dimes, or a cancer foundation when I balance her checkbook. She wants to feel like she is still contributing.

People with serious illnesses, he says, have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives.  Surveys find that their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars....the question...is.. how can we build a health care system that will actually help people achieve what's most important to them at the end of their lives?"

So, given the realities of the health care system that we have, and the opportunities that medicare affords my mother to access that health care system, the question I ponder is, what will be the best way to keep it all in balance? To assure that she has the assistance her body needs, without over taxing her mind and spirit in the process?

I was speaking to my mom's PA at one appointment about these complexities and she looked at me and said, "I know. I don't envy you."

Atul Gawande, thank you for your honest and soul-filled exploration of these questions for which we have no answers; for which we must go courageously forward and invent solutions, holding our hearts and those of our loved ones in our very clumsy and ill-equipped hands.

WAR & Love

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I never imagined myself reading a book about war.  When I read books with battle scenes I typically skip over the gruesome details. But I was having dinner with my nephew, who had recently returned from a deployment as a physician in Kuwait and our conversation turned to the complexities of war.

"If you want to know what war is really like, read Sebastian Junger's book WAR," he said. My nephew is a reflective observer of life so I thought I would give it a try.

I couldn't put it down. Because Sebastian Junger helped me to see the very human side of war. It's easy to keep the realities of war at more than arm's length, living here in the United States. It's easy to think about war as a relatively abstract concept.

This book didn't allow me to do that any more. Junger showed me what goes on in the hearts and minds of soldiers, mostly young men, confronting death on a daily basis. I felt as though he could have been writing about my nephew, or my son, he took such care with capturing their humanity. 

"War," says Junger, "is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter.  Combat is the smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of these young men."

Junger, better known for his book The Perfect Storm spent the better part of a fifteen month deployment in the Korengal Valley, considered the most dangerous zone in Afghanistan in 2008. This is no "hail the conquering hero" view of this war. It's a story of the psycho-emotional experience of war, told, not in dusty interviews but in action and discourse, observed in real time.

And I will never look at war the same way again.

It made me stop and ponder how soldiers psycho-emotionally manage the experience. There is a respect I have for the soldier's experience. I wouldn't presume to even imagine how they process the trauma. Nor would I presume that it is anything but an individual experience; different for each person. But I was fascinated to read in Junger's book an account of how, in the deeply confusing and conflicting nature of war, true heroism is birthed from the love these warrior's shared.

I am always curious and attracted to ways that love makes itself known in this world. Especially in the most brutal of human suffering. And Junger had the audacity to title the final section of his book "Love." To suggest that love not only existed in war but shaped the way humans experienced war. 

"The coward's fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body.  The inability to participate in others' lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death." - J. Glenn Gary, The Warriors

What I gather, here, is a truth about love. About how love looks in the face of death. Gary says that a coward is a coward because he is unable to love. That rings true to me. And Junger says that when you get a team of men together in a small group, and they face the risks and challenges of war, some of them begin to love each other. It may not look like love as we expect it to look. The "hazing" ritual of beating up new recruits or officers when they arrived at the outpost may not have looked like love. But the ritual showed much about how the men both respected one another, had a bit of fun, and took the physical challenges with dead seriousness.

They also began to love the tribe they created in a very short period of time. They create their own tribal love where the protection of the platoon matters more than the protection of their own body. And when they return from war, it is the tribe that they most miss, that they most long for.

This debunks a lot of what I thought about courage and faith. I make the assumption that when a person is willing to sacrifice their life for a greater cause it is because they have faith that their life will continue in spirit. But it doesn't appear that it was faith in God that motivated this love, so much as faith in their tribe. Faith in each other.

"The nearly narcotic effect of a tightly knit group might have made faith superfluous.  The platoon was the faith, a greater cause that, if you focused on it entirely, made your fears go away.  It was an anesthetic that left you aware of what was happening but strangely fatalistic about the outcome. As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with.  Cowardice lingered forever."

"The defense of the tribe," Junger says later, is an insanely compelling idea, and once you've been exposed to it, there's almost nothing else you'd rather do. The only reason anyone was alive at (and he names several high-risk outposts) was because every man up there was willing to die defending it."

"Collective defense can be so compelling - so addictive, in fact - that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place."

At one point in the book Junger ponders with a soldier about the Godless nature of the Korengal Valley. We always seem to say that God is absent in the face of great suffering. But I say, Religion may not have been present in that valley, but God was there. God existed in every breath of love that the soldiers shared. God existed when a man fell to his knees in grief at the site of dead friend and his platoon was there to comfort him. Jesus knew something of this when he said "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for a friend." Junger showed me how these soldiers tasted the real stuff.

It's Going to Be Okay

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It struck me this morning that each generation seems to have it's ways of keeping life from happening to us. For my grandparents' generation it was entering in to an unavoidable horror during WWI through service and community. For my parents, it was creating the perfect life in the suburbs according to Leave It To Beaver and The Dick VanDyke Show. For kids in the 70's it was a hippy scene of young adults disillusioned by that perfect life. For my generation it was embracing a new level of success dressed in business suits and caling ourselves yuppies.

And for my kids, I realized as I read Nora McInerny Purmort's book, it is pop culture and social media. Because when I started reading her book I was surprised and a bit discouraged at her flippant humor. One of the back cover blurbs says that she is the next generation's Anne Lamott and I said to myself, "you're no Anne Lamott, dear." 

But then I kept reading. I started laughing. And I kept reading. And then I started crying. Crying a bit from relief. Because I guess I have feared, as I'm sure that generations of parents do, that this deep dive into distraction that my children's generation chose, would keep them from really living. From becoming adults and engaging in the full spectrum of life. I feared that this next generation would spend their lives binge watching Netflix specials, experiencing life only through the dramatic stories of other people, and believing they need to create that same drama and closure cycle for themselves.

I am sorry to say that I am encouraged that life doesn't seem to be letting them do that. And Nora's story is living proof. (As are the stories of my own dear children). They might spend their time binge watching weird TV (it all seems pretty weird to me) and as my daughter tells me eating avocado toast for brunch at chic restaurants but they are still being called to live life. Maybe yanked out of their over-structured cozy childhoods into events for which there is no rubric. (I earned the right to say that because I was one of the parents who created that cozy childhood for her kids).

And so, I have found that this thirty-something millennial and I have a shared experience and that is widowhood. And I have found her honesty in trying to navigate these waters has made so much of my journey okay. Not because I think I did it better. But because she makes me feel okay about doing it the way that I am doing it.

And now, as I experienced the second anniversary of Roy's death yesterday (two days after my birthday...and come to realize that it will, for the rest of my life, occur two days after my birthday) I am struck by the chapter titled Lean In. Nora tells the story of seeing a psychic and hearing from her husband that she should make a list of things she still needed help with.

Yes I do believe that those we love and  lost long to help us with this struggle. Roy has been so very present with me many times during these past two years, always the best Roy, always comforting and strong and sometimes funny.

Nora goes on to say that she DID create a list and on it was the need to find a new place to live and someone to rent their house.  Here's here story:

"The first house I looked at with a realtor seemed perfect, and then I got to the kitchen. The fridge was free of the debris a normal family fridge is covered in: save-the-dates and finger paintings and free magnets from your local pizza shop. There was just one little piece of paper, the prayer card from Aaron's funeral, telling me, "It's Going to Be Okay."

After investigating the rest of the property, I found a wedding photo and saw that the bride was a classmate from grade school."

You'll have to read the book to get the rest of the story.

That's how I'm feeling this year. Like the prayer card on the fridge and the title of the final chapter in her book. It's going to be okay.

I look at my kids and myself and our newly formed family who have, (quoted from This is Us) earned our saber swords. I look at us finding new jobs and taking care of each other and crying and laughing together and doing the awkward family stuff that Nora describes. I see us creating our own holidays and "holy days" which are often separate things and being there for each other and I can say with conviction, WE ARE OK.

 

 

milk and honey

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The woman who recommended this book to our group told us, on the day we discussed it, that she worried for the entire month that she had made a mistake. What if they judge me? she asked herself. "What if they hate it?" "What if they find it disturbing?"

And I understood her trepidation. I applaud her for recommending it. I think it was a very vulnerable action to do so. It's my daughter Katie's book group, recently formed. Katie and I have taken to briefly discussing the books prior to the group. We had both put off reading this one, not for any particular reason; maybe because it was poetry instead of prose. So I bought it and read it in less than an hour.

Immediately after reading the first section I quickly texted her to warn her that it was really intense. (Even though she was at work, hadn't yet purchased the book, and wasn't likely to dip into it in the next, say several hours). That's how intense I found the first section. And yes, disturbing.

As a mother I didn't want her to read it at all. It was full of descriptions of things that I hoped my daughter would never have to know about. Of course that's completely unrealistic in this world, especially as my daughter recently turned 29. 

But then I finished the book. And again, immediately,  I texted her to just keep reading. To not stop after the first section. Because, while the poetry is raw with pain and suffering, a shocking loss of innocence and a graphic portrayal of things that most of us would rather just not discuss, the work of art in its entirety is truth. It is an honest and simple description of an arc of human suffering and healing.

It is at the same time horrifying, and hopeful, painful and optimistic. It contains the infinite experience of suffering and self-love in 200 pages and a handful of line drawings.

How did she do that? Here's how author rupi kaur describes it:

this is the journey of

surviving through poetry

this is the blood sweat tears

of twenty-one years

this is my heart

in your hands

this is

the hurting

the loving

the breaking

the healing

And to me, her words are courage. Courage to explore the experience of losing yourself in love, and then finding yourself again.

Rupi at 21, me at 59. For when the object of our love leaves, it does not really matter whether the love as been for 35 weeks or 35 months or 35 years. To love deeply is to make a soul investment in another person. And when that connection comes to an end, there is the growing into a new self, redefined, recreated, loved, cherished and discovered.  She says,

losing you

was the becoming

of myself

Yes, another becoming. As for her, I imagine, there will be so many more. As for me, there have been so many before, and will continue to be. I heard an interview with actor Christopher Plummer (88 years old) who was up for an Academy Award this year. He talked about noticing that he reinvented himself about every ten years. Every ten years he was willing to let go of some things and bring in some new things. It sounds like such a good idea when it's a successful actor talking about it.

But when it's me, here in the details of the every day, the emotion of the shedding, the shock of the letting go, the fear of trusting in that new thing, it doesn't appear quite as attractive. But it is. That is life. The birthing, nurturing, growing, releasing, letting go, and dying. And then the birthing....and on and on.

So beautifully and honestly portrayed in this collection.

We Need to Change How We See

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The most compelling scene in this movie is the school principal confronting a pair of disgruntled parents with, "Maybe what we need to change is not how he looks.  Maybe what we need to change is how we see."

This inspiring story is packed full of archetypes and important messages about love, acceptance, self-image and community. While there was a great deal to watch in the relationships between the protagonist, Auggie, and the children he interacted with at his new school, I found myself closely watching something else.  The adults in his life.  And I was delighted to see some very hopeful male archetypes. Father, teacher, mentor, friend, all offering a refreshingly quiet yet courageous style of masculine empowerment.

In the father, played by Owen Wilson, I saw the vulnerability of a man whose heart ached for the suffering of his son. I saw a man who wanted his son to be "normal", happy, empowered. I also saw a man who was learning how to find acceptance, courage, self-love, a sense of humor and even playfulness in the face of that heartache as he helped his son navigate a new and less than friendly world. I saw a man who wanted his son to see that the world was much larger and full of potential than the narrow-minded people he would encounter.

In his teacher, a former Wall-Street trader, I saw a man who was no stranger to the pain of discrimination. He encouraged Auggie to participate in class, and noticed the subtle nuances of exclusion that needed to be addressed and overcome for this child.  He didn't make Auggie a "school issue" by creating a scene or pressing a point.  Instead he became Auggie's quiet champion, gently reminding him, and his classmates, that he is included. That he is an important and valued part of his class.

In the school principal, I saw a mentor who dealt with the larger issues around supporting (and protecting) Auggie. In a shocking scene, the principal confronts the parents of a bullying child. Among other things, the child had brought a copy of the recent class photo to school. The photo had been digitally altered to exclude Auggie. His mother had done it. The combination of rage and frustration in the principal's face at seeing the cruelty of this was poignant, but what he said was even more so. "Maybe we don't need to change how he looks, maybe we need to change how we see."

And finally, Auggie's best friend, who encountered his own challenges as a scholarship kid in a private school. I saw his heroics as he learned to see the affects his behavior had on his friend, on himself, and on his community. He was able to find and keep his compassionate heart as it was newly opening to life's challenges.

There were no dramatic plot twists, no explosions, no arrests, or fires or major psychological turns.  Just the daily subtle nuances of pain, discrimination, and choice. And somehow, this writer helped me to feel compassion for all of the characters. Not just for Auggie and his family and their individual struggles. But also for the wounded parents who were trying to manage a wounded and bullying child. The confused fifth-graders who were trying to figure out their place in the world. The adults who should have, but for the most part didn't really have any better handle on how to deal with this situation than the children.

And no, I did not miss the point that the real hero of this story was Auggie, because HE was the one who invited us to make these choices. This amazing and delightful and very real young man offered us the invitations to make our own choices about acceptance, friendship and community. He led the way.

I was encouraged by these characters because they made larger than life the possibility of changing how we see. How kind, funny, compassionate men can literally change the world. They certainly changed Auggie's world.

Here's a video from another man who is helping us to see new ways to embody masculinity. How gentle love and compassion can be a powerful force.

 

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

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"Since childhood I have had trouble imagining heaven, for, I'll say it, the descriptions have always disappointed...All my life, I have secretly searched for a credible glimpse of eternal bliss, in fern-floored groves, in echoing cathedrals, and in the iridescent surface of a perfect stock.  Had anyone told me I would have found it upon a pirate ship, I would have struck them down with a ladle. To these imagined persons, I offer an apology."

I never expected to find such lovely prose in a novel about a cook captured by a pirate and forced to prepare for her a series of gourmet meals. As a writer, I'm a bit jealous. What a clever concept! The play of the raw primitive life of a pirate against the nuanced blending of the flavors of sea and spice. One expects a harsh swashbuckling woman as the pirate and an angry unyielding bumbler as the captured cook. But in this lovely story, Eli Brown gives us characters rich with depth and the search for love and beauty.

For I have been learning that heaven is rarely where I think I am going to find it. I am finding heaven in the upturned eyes of a trusting one-year-old, the warm hug of an understanding friend, the words that flow from my hand to the paper, or the keyboard. Because it's getting more real to me that heaven is not a place, but a state of being. I think that's what Jesus meant when he tried to get us to see that the Kingdom of God is within us.

I have, since Roy died, been reflecting a great deal on the many many moments of love between us that I took for granted. I often climbed into bed at night, so exhausted, that I left the light on over the sink where I had been brushing my teeth. He'd look up from his book and say "wanna get that light?" Every time. Like it was the first time it happened, and he was just casually suggesting I turn it off. If the roles were reversed I probably would have been saying, 'geez Roy, every night! Can't you remember to turn the light off before you get into bed?" But that wasn't Roy's way. 'Wanna get that light?' Those little gestures speak love.

I suppose that is a natural part of grieving. I see more clearly now how being in a relationship with someone in our human bodies with all the demands of surviving and thriving can cloud over even the deepest love. It gets murky. Sometimes it gets muddy. Sometimes it's downright quicksand. I let that happen. I'm not beating myself up. I suppose we all let that happen in many ways, and that I continue to let that happen in other relationships.

But when that earthy human nature of the relationship is stripped away, I feel like I am left not with the arguments and childish behavior, but with the millions of sweet and tender moments of love that passed between us in 35 years. And the millions that I probably missed. For heaven was not where I expected it to be. I get it when people say 'if I could just have one more day.' The desire to just get one more moment of that pure connection. 'I won't miss it this time. Really I promise.' But of course I would. It's just being human.

The cook in Brown's novel expressed this for me so eloquently as he nursed his captor back from a near deadly battle on the sea.

"The bowl of rabbit broth I carried to Mabbot's cabin was a forgiveness and a plea for forgiveness, an acknowledgement that this blood is shared universally. With this meal I surrendered to the mystery of my days and vowed never to look askance at love of any kind, nor to defy it. For the world is a far more expansive and mystifying place than can be said."

And that is a gift I have been given in Roy's death. To simply desire to be more aware of love of any kind, and to never look askance when it is offered. The gentle cook had lost his wife to childbirth shortly before he was captured. He and his captor shared an unexpected experience of grief for those they loved and could not save. And he says of his wife:

"As for Elizabeth, if she knows anything, she knows that she lives in the purest parts of my heart...

I can't imagine a better way to express this truth. That Roy now lives in the purest parts of my heart. That our love is changed and refined in ways that I could never have imagined. This is heaven. How could it not be?

Learning to Eat Again

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Yesterday, Katie read this excerpt to me from Joe Biden's Biden's book:

"One thing I have grown especially attuned to over the years is just how many people are quietly and uncomplainingly suffering psychic and emotional pain at any given time.  Consider the simple fact that as I sped along a highway at the far edge of America in the last few days of 2014, more than two and a half million of our fellow citizens had perished in the single year.  A fifth of those people had died of cancer, which meant they had likely suffered long, harrowing, and painful deaths as their families looked on feeling helpless. A population twice the size of my hometown of Wilmington had died in some form of accident.  Here and healthy one day; gone forever the next."

He goes on... he talks about the number that died from suicide, alcohol and drugs, gun shots and accidents.  The big picture is overwhelming and hard to grasp.  But it's important to remember.  Each time I step out my door, I am likely to encounter someone who is suffering, who needs grace or mercy or compassion.

But the place where I relate to the pain and suffering is in the individual stories, whether real or dramatized.  That's why I like Grey's Anatomy.  I know I'll lose some folks here, that's OK, but I think Shonda Rhimes gets it.  The surgery story is such a beautiful analogy for the spiritual life. Well, of course it is, the body is the container of that spirit in every fiber and cell.  So she shows us, in minute detail, the anatomy of the body as a reflection of the spirit on the journey.

I've been sick.  Ugh.  (And, yes, the irony is not lost on me that my body is reflecting my spirit continuing to struggle back into balance). And I've been binge watching Grey's to catch up for the 2 seasons I didn't watch after Roy died.  Way tooooo intense.  And, also yesterday I watched season 13, a later episode, not sure the number, where (spoiler alert) Maggie's mom died.  Yes, it was cathartic.  But more importantly for me, it made me see that my inability to function after Roy's death was not some weakness in my character, or psyche, or spirit, but a universal response to shock and grief.

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It was the scene at the end of the episode where we see Maggie sitting at the dining room table in front of a half-eaten pan of lasagna that she had made with her mother. The fork is in her hand but she is not eating.  She is staring, like she's not quite sure what to do with the fork.  I get that.  Then Meredith and Amelia come home and see her. They walk to the table and sit beside her.  Then Meredith takes a bite.  Then Amelia takes a bite. No one says a word.  Then Maggie seems to get it and the three of them take a bite together.

That is so very real for me. Being in such a state of overwhelm and confusion that even the autonomic functions seem to have collapsed and abandoned me. And her friends, they knew. They just came and sat next to her. And showed her how to eat again.  They didn't come in and say, Oh, good Maggie, you need to eat.  Glad to see you're feeling like eating. They didn't say anything.

They just sat next to her and taught her how to eat again. And I am so very grateful for the people who came and sat with me. You all know who you are. Well, maybe some of you don't. Because sometimes, the smallest gestures have great magnitude.

On any given day, when I walk out the door, there will be people I encounter who are learning to eat again.  Knowing this, I try to go more gently into the world.

If She Went On, It Would Have to Be By Herself

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I am beginning to open to the possibility that maybe this is how the second half of my life is meant to go. Time and space to think and process and ponder thoughts and ideas. And as I have been pondering this, I encountered this beautiful passage from Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.

"If she went on, it would have to be by herself."  The protagonist, Lyra, has been on a hero's journey through a treacherous, frigid landscape, escorted in the final legs by a strong and comforting giant polar bear. But, finally, they encounter an ice bridge over a great dark chasm, cracked to the point of being able to hold very little weight.  Lyra's, perhaps, but certainly not that of the bear. 

I am there.  At that part of my journey where I realize if I am to go on, now, it will be by myself. It is not a bad place, but this realization does not come without it's terror and angst.

"I got to go across," Lyra says. "Thank you for all you done. I don't know what's going to happen when I get to him. We might all die, whether I get to him or not. But if I come back, I'll come and see you to thank you properly..."

She laid a hand on his head. He let it lie there and nodded gently.

"Goodbye, Lyra Silvertongue," he said."

And as I read this the tears started to flow and I saw Roy standing clearly nodding to me that it is fine and good for me to move forward on my path.

"Her heart thumping painfully with love, she turned away and set her foot on the bridge. The snow creaked under her...step after step she took and wondered with every step whether it would be better to run swiftly and leap for the other side or go slowly as she was doing and tread as lightly as possible. Halfway across there came another loud creak from the snow, a piece fell off and tumbled into the abyss and the bridge settled down another few inches against the crack. She stood perfectly still."

Coming out of grief feels like that. Inching onto an uncertain bridge suspended over an abyss of the unknown with no guarantee for the next step. But the next sentence grabbed me with its truth:

"The bridge held." 

THE BRIDGE HELD!!!! Yes yes yes! I have taken many of those tentative steps in this last year, not knowing if and/or how the bridge would hold. It has creaked beneath my weary feet. But the bridge has held.

"She took another step, then another, and then she felt something settling down below her feet and leaped for the far side with all her strength. She landed belly-down in the snow as the entire length of the bridge fell into the crevasse with a soft whoosh behind her...

"After a minute she opened her eyes and crawled up away from the edge. There was no way back.

"She stood and raised her hand to the watching bear. Iorek Byrnison stood on his hind legs to acknowledge her and then turned and made off down the mountain in a swift run to help his subjects in battle...

"Lyra was alone."

I see you there, Roy, raising your hand to me, encouraging me that the bridge has held and I have made it across. And I can go forward on my own. I see you making off down the mountain in a swift run of joy toward the eternal and infinite experience of love.

"Lyra looked up at the blazing sky. She was aware of how small they were...in comparison with the  majesty and vastness of the universe and of how little they knew in comparison with the profound mysteries above them."

"She turned away. Behind them lay pain and death and fear; ahead of them lay doubt and danger and fathomless mysteries. But they weren't alone [after all]."

This is why I love story. Because of the way others' stories inform my own experience. I know this feeling. I know the feeling of the bridge holding, and the feeling of something settling down below my feet so that I can not just step, but leap forward. I know the feeling of landing on something sure and solid, even though it be a belly-flop. I know the stinging truth that there is no way back. And I know the feeling of being alone and being OK. And then of trusting in the fathomless mysteries among which I am not alone at all.

Godless

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'Tis a fearful thing to love

what death can touch

A fearful thing

to love, to hope, to

dream,

to be

And oh, to lose

A thing for fools, this

And a holy thing,

A holy thing

to love

For your life has lived in me

Your laugh once lifted me

Your word was gift to me

To remember this brings painful joy

Tis a human thing

love

a holy thing, to love

what death has touched

~ Yehuda Halevi

Grief woke me early this morning and sat next to me as I rolled pom poms. Grief, woven through my fingers as I wrapped gifts and tied bows. Grief, sprinkling into the bowl as I mixed the cookie batter. Grief still with me, finally pouring out in the tears that sit and wait in my heart for the gentle touch that releases them...the thought, the picture the memory.  

I felt so confident, going into the season, that grief has been gently tamed and put to its place, like a horse that has been gently broken. Taken from the frenzy of fear and pain and the desire to flea and gently brought down to the dust. Listening to my words, learning to trust, allowing me the rein, allowing me to raise it again, gently trusting that I can love and control it. And then, it reminds me, yet again, that though I have tamed it to my purpose it remains the powerful and stronger animal that has only, by trust, submitted to my will, to my wishes and desires.

I do not let it take over. I know now how to better manage the power of this beast. And yet, on days like today, it is there to remind me. I have a new experience to be with, to live with, to allow its space and room so that it can move freely with me, in a rhythm. And I can trust that I can move freely with it.

And the relationship becomes a friend to me. Teaching me as I give it space, but serving me only as I am able to be present with it - to see the nurturing possibility - the give and take. 

For should I enclose it in a confined space where it cannot move and breathe and be in my life, it will no longer serve me, but fight me, work against me and we will not continue in love any longer. And we would not make our peace. But instead, by heeding its gentle approaches, its reminders, its painful presence and allowing it room, we are able to serve each other, to learn and grow and become that Divine dance that plays with us both.

 

 

A Fall of Marigolds

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Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

~John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

"Ode on a Grecian Urn is about expectation and fulfillment...sometimes the expectation is better than the fulfillment...'Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.' Keats is saying what you can still dream about is often sweeter than reality."

In this beautifully woven story, Susan Meissner takes us on a journey of expectation, longing, loss and healing. And interweaves this lovely idea about John Keats' famous poem.  

For the first time in many many years I am observing the season of Advent. This year for me it encompasses that matrix of emotions portrayed in Meissner's characters. But I am most enthralled with the idea of expectation. During this quiet and darkened season, counting down the days until Christmas, I get to experience expectation in my material world that so captures spiritual experience.

And I have been struck by the rhythm of our holidays. Of how we end a season of growth with our national holiday of Thanksgiving. How that time is available to me to express gratitude for what has transpired, what I have learned, how I have been sustained, nurtured, protected and loved. The abundance of hopes recognized and labors rewarded in the symbol of harvest.

And then, immediately, I am set upon this sweet season of expectation. A season of dreaming, of longing, of trusting as the year draws to a close. I see this metaphorically; how it can define any season in history, in life in our time/space continuum drawing to a close and ushering in this time of dreaming, longing and expectation. How this leads us to a new place.

Hold fast to your dreams, says Langston Hughes, for if dreams die, life is but a broken winged bird who cannot fly.

This is a beautiful gift. As the season of Advent leads us to a sweet day of longings fulfilled, wrapped in packages with strings and bows, my spiritual seasons of dreaming and longing lead me to pursuit what is yet to be born. Yes, Christmas morning can have its disappointments, as the fulfillment may not be as sweet as the expectation. And seasons in my life may have their disappointments as it can seem impossible for the beauty of the expectations in my deepest longings to be fulfilled. But what is sweeter, asks Keats? The longing or the fulfillment? When I experience the longing, I am drawn to that which is calling me. That fulfillment in love. I don't think we can really know that fully in our material experience. But I am beginning to see that the longing, the pursuit, the dreaming is the stuff that gives meaning to my life.  

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol

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When my kids were young we used to take a family field trip to Denver every year.  We went to the Tabor Center to see the same jolly Santa with the real belly, real beard, and a sparkle in his eyes.  One year a film crew from a Denver news channel was interviewing people about Christmas Traditions.  I was so excited when he approached us.  He asked whether we knew what The Nutcracker Suite was.  Oh, I thought, I've got this one!  I gushed about the ballet, Christmas tradition, how our family made it a special event to include it in some form in our Christmas every year.  I am sure my kids were looking at me aghast wondering what I was talking about.

That evening we excitedly watched the news to see if our interview was included in the story.  I was pretty confident.  After all I had painted a pretty good picture of a family wrapped in Christmas tradition.

My heart sunk when I heard the story.  The reporter's spin was that people don't really participate in those old Christmas traditions, and in fact most people didn't even know what the Nutcracker Suite was.  I guess he was trying to do a Jay Leno man on the street interview.  Several young couples were featured with puzzled looks on their faces as they tried to place the mysterious ballet.

Yes, I love Christmas tradition.  I love the Nutcracker Suite and Christmas Choirs, and yes, every single version of A Christmas Carol.

Katie selected it for her book group this month and I realized that I had seen many many versions of the story, but could not recall having actually read it in Dickens' words.  A literature major. Shameful.

So I got a version from the library and spent Thanksgiving weekend with Scrooge and his ghosts. I saw something in the reading this time that I had never seen in the movie or theater versions. The first ghost Scrooge encountered, the ghost of Christmas Past, was helping Scrooge review his wounded child.  Yes Scrooge was an awful stingy and cranky guy.  But it was created by his pain. And in order to heal his pain, he had to go back and look at what had caused it.  Maybe because I have been having that experience as I have been moving through the grief process I especially identified with Scrooge this time around. Stingy, fearful, angry, unable to embrace joy.

I see those parts of me.  But I also see what the ghosts were able to help Scrooge do.  The gift of Christmas!  To see and love all of those parts of himself and be free of the pain.  In one night he let it all go and embraced joy, abundance, charity, hope.  He began to feel compassion and pain, even grief.

Oh, Charles Dickens, you clever man.

Because that is the true gift of Christmas.  To see all of myself with love and compassion.  To forgive myself and accept the love that is so abundantly available to me.  To open my heart to peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness.  For that is a new type of journey.

A Collection of a Million Moments

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Friday night the kids and I had a great night at Mo' Betta Gumbo in Loveland, drinking moonshine (I know, right?) and eating catfish and jambalaya. These days when we are together, a regular refrain among us is "Dad would have loved this". Or "Dad would be rolling his eyes". Or, "remember when Dad..."

That's why we have to spend a lot of time together. Just us. Remembering. Reclaiming. Rebuilding.  

After dinner we walked across the street to the new corner arcade to remember Roy.

Roy loved to play pinball. Of this, we were all aware. One of his favorite t-shirts was the one from Pin Ball Jones that the kids bought him for a birthday or father's day.  

I, however, am the only person in his life that knows how he spent lonely Sunday afternoons in college avoiding the looming window reserved for studying by heading to the dorm rec room or a local bar for an hour or two of pinball.  

The kids and I are the only people in his life who were invited into that lovely mix of flashing lights and pinging ricochet's, that satisfying flip of levers that saved the ball from sliding into oblivion and sent it skittering again into the field of sensory overwhelm.  

I loved to watch him play. The way he stood at the machine, leaning on one hip, one foot tucked behind the other. The tug on the sliver nob that launched the ball. That little nudge of the machine to get the ball out of a danger zone. It was youth.

I also love to remember how he would watch me play. Standing behind me at the machine, flinching ever so slightly when I missed an important flip. Chuckling at my frustration as the ball repeatedly slipped by those flippers. Ready with another quarter to slip into the slot.  A million moments.

I came home from that evening and settled into my reading chair with "A Gentleman In Moscow." And there I found one of many many lovely scenes.  An unlikely child's caregiver had become for her the curator of those moments about her mother.  

And I reflected on the extraordinary gift of knowing someone. Really knowing them. Knowing them over years of daily routines and habits, joys and sorrows, frustrations and victories.  Knowing the quirky habits and the beautiful responses to life that made them who they were.

As the young woman describes to the Count how she invokes emotion into her piano playing, she explains:

"He (her teacher) says that before one plays a note, one must discover an example of the composition's mood hidden away in one's heart. So for this piece, I think about my mother.  I think of how my few memories of her seem to be fading, and then I begin to play."

The Count was quiet, overwhelmed by another wave of astonishment.

"Does that make sense," she asked?

"Abundantly," he said.  "As a younger man, I used to feel the same way about my sister. Every year that passed, it seemed a little more of her had slipped away; and I began to fear that one day I would come to forget her altogether.  But the truth is:  No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely."

Does everyone feel that way when they grieve? That sense that something vital has slipped away and will be irretrievably lost? I know I do.  And I find extraordinary comfort in this unexpected emergence of memories.

While we were living the dailyness of our life together, I had no idea that I was becoming a repository of knowing Roy. That I was storing up a lifetime of small moments that I will bring out at the right times and share with our children. And that our children also became repositories and will share their moments with me in a circle of love and healing and remembering.

Not extraordinary things. Not mysterious hidden things. Just the myriad of details about who he was and how he lived his life. Kind of like pinball. Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing. But a treasure nonetheless. A collection of a million moments.

Big Magic!

 This book is filled with food for the creative soul. I recommend it to anyone stepping into a lifestyle of creativity and will be sharing more about how it is affirming and shaping my own creative life. 

This book is filled with food for the creative soul. I recommend it to anyone stepping into a lifestyle of creativity and will be sharing more about how it is affirming and shaping my own creative life. 

Many years ago Roy and I led a marriage workshop for the church where he was a pastor.  We decided to show a scene from a movie that portrayed intense forgiveness as we tried (emphasis on tried, because we were barely beginning to explore this ourselves) to teach how intimacy flowed through relationship. 

It was from the 1993 movie Indecent Proposal. Perhaps you've seen it.  IMDB's summary is "A billionaire offers $1,000,000 to a young married couple for one night with the wife." Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson play the young couple who navigate the aftermath of their choice. One that they made together which eventually split them apart.

The scene we showed was the end, where they sat on a deserted beach on opposite sides of a bench with a tall wall.  One of them reached up over the wall and waited until....finally, the other hand came up and touched.

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We had no idea what would happen and we certainly didn't anticipate what DID happen. The energy level in the room shifted so profoundly that we had to take a break. Women cried. Men fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats. We tried to ask a question, but nobody spoke. People were just stunned by the emotion.  

So we took a break, a very long break, and talked about how we were going to help people navigate this unexpected raw experience.

What Roy and I stumbled into was actually creativity in action. I have stumbled into it so many many times in my life and all too frequently been embarrassed or shamed by the emotion I have (inadvertently) evoked.

Until I just stopped doing it.  

Not coincidentally, I suppose, part of the weekend was a brief teaching I did on creativity. I had come to the epiphany that creativity is a survival instinct that we all have. So many times I hear people say "oh, I'm not really very creative" and I say, "Did you get dressed this morning? The very act of choosing what to wear, how you want to look on a given day is a creative act! You may not be doing it consciously, but you are doing it."

At the break, an engineer in the group approached  me and said "do you work in marketing?" I said I did.  "I thought so," he said, and walked away.  Hmmmmm.

So my journey into creativity taught me a few limiting lessons that weekend that I want to shed. I was shut down by fear. Other people's fear of intimacy, my fear of intimacy, and my fear about how my ideas and expressions made people very very uncomfortable.

Fast forward 14 years to reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic.  And in it she says..."Creativity is the hallmark of our species."

YES! YES!  I said.  And then I thought, hey, I said that years ago. That's what it took for my truth to find validity. It took someone else saying it. Someone on the best-seller list.

Damn, I thought.  I have to start listening to myself.

 

The Cruelest Month

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"Where does what go?" Gabri asked after a minute's silence.

Myrna whispered, 'Our sorrow. It has to go somewhere.'"

And with that statement Louise Penny invited me into the archetype of "home."

"Gamache knew people were like homes. Some were cheerful and bright, some gloomy. Some could look good on the outside but feel wretched on the interior.  And some of the least attractive homes, from the outside, were kindly and warm inside.

"He also knew the first few rooms were for public consumption. It was only in going deeper that he'd find the reality. And finally, inevitably, there was the last room, the one we keep locked and bolted and barred, even from ourselves. Especially from ourselves." 

In The Cruelest Month, the archetype was The Old Hadley House, that abandoned house, up on the hill, just outside of Three Pines, an allegory for the place I fear; that place in my spirit or my psyche where I store away what I don't want to see. That place that grows, over time, into something abandoned, unknown and terrifying. However, she says gently,  "Everything has it wonders, even darkness and silence."

One character described it simply, as the principle of balance.  'Nature is balance. Action and reaction. Life and death. Everything's in balance. It makes sense that the old Hadley house is close to Three Pines. They balance each other."  

Well, ok, that makes it a little less scary, right? Balance is a good thing, right? But let's just keep that old house up on the hill where we don't have to see it, and far enough away that we have no reason to go there.

That's fear talking. Everyone in Three Pines avoids the Old Hadley House, and fear is the reason. But there is a price to keeping the darkness at bay. Penny describes it beautifully when she says that fear is "an alchemist and could turn daylight into night, joy into despair.  Fear, once taken root, blocked the sun."

Fear of encountering certain aspects of my ego, my created self, gets in the way of my relationship with all that is Divine. I may not have to look at or enter that old house, but, buy gosh it is blocking my view. Those parts of me that need to be loved, explored, brought to the light of consciousness, and forgiven. Those parts of me that don't make me a bad person, they just cloud the sun. They make it hard for me to experience a connection to my creator and to all creation.

When Roy died I lost all of my defenses around those parts of me. My created self just couldn't bear the weight. I learned how great suffering can do that; strip us of the defenses that we have so carefully crafted in order to survive. I entered that terrifying house, against my will, and tumbled down into the basement, as she describes in this scene.

"He'd opened this same door in the middle of a fierce storm, in the dark...and he'd stepped into a void. It was like every nightmare coming true. He'd crossed a threshold into nothingness. No light, no stairs.

And he'd fallen. As had the others with him. Into a wounded and bloody heap on the floor below.

The old Hadley house protected itself. It seemed to tolerate, with ill grace, minor intrusions. But it grew more and more malevolent the deeper you went. Instinctively his hand went into his pants pocket, then came out again, empty.

But he remembered the BIble in his jacket and felt a little better. Though he didn't himself go to church, he knew the power of belief. And symbols."

My defenses do fiercely protect themselves. Layers of anger, fear, despair, outrage rear their ugly heads to protect from seeing what is in that basement.  

It was like that for me.  Like falling into an abyss. That place where my sorrow went. That place where all of the emotions that I didn't want to see live and breathe and yes, control my life.  So, it was a salvation of sorts.  Because once those places were encountered, they began to lose control. It doesn't happen overnight, of course.  It's a process.  Like Inspector Gamache's take on loss:

"You didn't just lose a loved one. You lost your heart, your memories, your laughter, your brain and it even took your bones.  Eventually it all came back, but different, rearranged."

And I am finding that it's true, what I've been told. What's underneath all of that garbage that I have stored away in the house on the hill is love. That's all that's left, once it has all been brought to light. For me, it's not a one and done kind of thing. I expect I'll spend the rest of my life with perhaps daily episodes of heading down to the basement to shed light on something, to bring love and compassion to some anger or sorrow or fear.  But that seems to me a better way to be in the world. Safer, somehow, more authentic.

And I am seeing that the fear, ultimately, is a fear of love.  Because love makes me vulnerable.  I can neither predict or control the path of love and it's consequent joys and sorrows. But I can begin to trust it. Begin.

 

The Word Made Flesh

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I have been following Dr. Joe's work, and practicing with his ideas for awhile now.  But when, in this TedX Talk he called it "the word made flesh" bells and whistles went off for me.  Now he's speaking my language...words and spirit.  I've always seen that expression in light of the traditional Christian interpretation that the word was made flesh in the embodiment of Jesus Christ.  And I believe that truth.  But also, here, we see the science of how this works in our own minds, bodies and spirits, as we are created in the image of God.

As I love words, and am always exploring their extraordinary power, I was especially struck by this eloquent explanation.

https://www.facebook.com/DrJoeDispenzaOfficialNewsFanPage/videos/2122965437728839/

Edna St. Vincent Millay Got Grief...

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell."

It has been 19 months and that feeling creeps in ... you should be over it ... move on ...  and I see it and say ... but how deeply did we love. October 16th is our wedding anniversary.  A marriage far from perfect, filled with a host of challenges and heartaches.  But in the face of it all, October had always been our month to enjoy; the changing season, the beauty of Colorado in the fall, walking for coffee in the crisp morning air, the striking color of the leaves, sometimes even venturing up the canyon for a last fishing weekend with our fingerless gloves.  This year would be 35 years.  Roy always bought me flowers, often a rose for each year we were married. Sometimes I think the idea of purchasing three dozen roses was just too much for him.  A little grief humor.

 

And I hear these words from a character in the new TV series, This is Us:  "If you don't address your grief, it's like a big deep breath that you never exhale."  

For those of you who are not "over it" yet, who have not "moved on" ... I see you.  I am with you.

Dirge Without Music

BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

 

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

 

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—

They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled

Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve. 

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

 

 

EdnaSt. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis.

Grief Is a Tricky Friend

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When Roy died I found myself initiated into a special club.  A club that none of its members want to join, but we find each other nonetheless.  Those I meet from the club are kind and gentle, sensitively attuned to the pain they know I am enduring.  

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, became a sort of leader of the club when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015.  She has since written a book Option B, about her journey.  I read somewhere, maybe an excerpt of the book, or maybe a FB post, about her experience noticing women wearing necklaces with gold rings dangling from them.  Not just any gold rings, special gold rings.  Wedding rings.  A sign of membership.

 I purchased a ring when I was recently in Italy and I now call it my widow ring, a fitting contrast the that "other" ring that I chose to take off and now wear, from a gold chain, around my neck.  Both rings are symbols of how love shapes and shifts, an energy that never dies.  I wear my widow ring on the fourth finger of my right hand.  It's a hard symbolism to accept.  Yet each time I look at it I am gently invited to accept this reality, gently asked to explore the seeming opposites of letting go and holding on.  Gently invited to see my own life and Roy's life as part of a larger expression of love and suffering.  A larger expression of grieving as receiving, as transformative. 

Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes about this as a spiritual experience.

"The prophet Zechariah calls Israel to “Look upon the pierced one and to mourn over him as for an only son,” and “weep for him as for a firstborn child,” and then “from that mourning” (five times repeated) will flow “a spirit of kindness and prayer” (12:10) and “a fountain of water” (13:1; 14:8).

"From that mourning...will a flow a spirit of kindness and prayer, and a fountain of water." (My emphasis)

We would now call this “grief work”—holding the mystery of all suffering, looking honestly right at it, and learning from it, which typically leads to an uncanny and newfound compassion and understanding.

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward suffering and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

Transformation means to change form, move across, or “shape-shift.” To be transformed is to look out at reality from a genuinely new source and center, seeing things in a larger and more holistic way.

Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus—the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is a very dramatic image of what it takes to be a usable one for God."

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward suffering and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.  (My emphasis)

I believe this too, and I'm thankful that Richard Rohr expresses it so eloquently.  Who would choose to look honestly, right at suffering, if we didn't have to?  I know I didn't.  But as a result I have experienced deeply how God's heart has always been softened toward me.  And how she wishes for my heart to be softened toward the suffering of others.

A Fatal Grace

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"I only became really happy after my family was killed.  Horrible to say."  Yet Louise Penny has the courage to say it.  Shocking as it was to hear, I find that there is some truth for me in her character's comment.  "Their deaths changed me," she says.  "At some point I was standing in my living room unable to move forward or back.  Frozen.  That's why I asked about the snowstorm.  That's what it had felt like, for months and months.  As though I was lost in a whiteout.  Everything was confused and howling.  I couldn't go on.  I was going to die.  I didn't know how, but I knew I couldn't support the loss any longer.  I'd staggered to a stop...lost, disoriented, at a dead end...in my own living room.  Lost in the most familiar, the most comforting of places."

But she didn't die.  And neither did I.  For Penny's character, the turning point was a workman standing at her door with a sign that said "ice ahead."  He needed to use the phone.  For her, it was a message of hope, direct from God.  She describes how, in that moment,  her "despair disappeared.  The grief remained, of course, but I knew then that the world wasn't a dark and desperate place.  I was so relieved.  In that moment I found hope.  This stranger with the sign had given it to me.  It sounds ridiculous, I know, but suddenly the gloom was lifted.

"My life's never been the same since that day I opened the door.  I'm happy now.  Content.  Funny isn't it?  I had to go to Hell to find happiness."

For me, it wasn't a single event that lifted the gloom and despair, but more a gentle dawning over time.  It felt like a trip I took with Sam, leaving at midnight and driving through sunrise.  We were driving West through Utah, so the dawn was behind us, and I kept looking in the rearview mirror waiting for more light.  The hint of light started to glow in the sky long before the sun came over the plateaus in my mirror.  I kept waiting to see that sun burst over the horizon, but it seemed to take hours.  That's how it was for me.  I kept looking to the horizon waiting for the sun to burst through, waiting for the day I would awake, as people described, and I would just feel better.  I was desperate to see the gloom lift, the light shine again, dawn to find me.  But it was not a sudden sunburst.  It was a slow moving aside of the clouds and fog.

Yes, dawn has found me.  I see it, not in the absence of grief, but in the ability to be in grief and sorrow and know that I have the strength to endure it as it slowly integrates into my experience.  Hope and comfort, peace and compassion are no longer abstract intellectual concepts, but felt experiences that I desperately need and desire to cultivate.

And there is truth in the phrase that after the loss of one deeply loved I understand happiness differently.  

 I have a new capacity for it.  Life takes on a precious beauty.  Things that seemed critical before fall to the background and I find myself looking each day for grace, beauty, joy, love.  I just feel more attuned to it. I see special moments that I never saw before. The grief is still there, yes, but happiness is equally present, and looks much, much different.