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.

Still Life

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The last book I read in the mystery genre was The Happy Hollisters.  Or maybe it was The Bobbsey Twins.  If you recognize those titles, you know what I mean.  I was 8, or 9 or maybe 10.  I discovered a wonderful new concept when my parents purchased a book subscription for me and each month in the mail I received a new one!  It was like Christmas every month.

So when Still Life, by Louise Penny, was recommended at my book group one evening, I listened politely and said to myself, well just because it's a book group choice doesn't mean I have to read it.  That's the thing about my book group.  You don't have to read the book.

Then one day, my mind short-circuited by grief, I decided to give "Still Life" a try.  Something light and entertaining, not too gruesome.  And then for awhile, Louise Penny was all that I could read.

Now I'm sure that an author's highest compliment is NOT that she got a grieving widow through her first year of anguish and turmoil.  But that is my testimony to Louise.  With much thanks.

There is so much to love about her mysteries.  One day as my mind became more able to focus I reflected on Three Pines, the small village in Quebec that is the setting for all of her Inspector Gamache mysteries.  Ahhh, I thought.  Such a great archetype for the safe place that I would love to call home.  A tiny remote village (mysterious in it's absence on the map); a small community of like-minded but quirky friends who all "get" and accept each others' faults and defaults, gifts and contributions.  A lovely B&B with a bistro that serves up the likes of "a mug of hot soup with a warm roll stuffed with ham, melting brie and a few leaves of arugula," while a fire crackles in the fireplace banked by cozy arm chairs.  Yes please.

And from that safe place Penny weaves, not only an engaging mystery, but also a story filled with so many things that I love:  literary references, psychological perspective, inspirational adages, spiritual perspective, humor, grace, humility, forgiveness.  Each story woven through with a special insight that I can take away and chew on.  She makes me see myself with humor and compassion.

Still Life, it seems to me, is an invitation to that safe place inside of us where we can begin to integrate aspects of our self, to take our own journeys of self-discovery. Perhaps that's because I am in that stage of life right now.  Her main character, Inspector Gamache, introduces his philosophy as a crime detective to his new recruits with the scripture from Matthew 10:36 "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

In one scene a new recruit happens upon a mirror with the a note attached that says "you're looking at the problem."  

At another point Gamache reflects on an "analogy someone told him years ago.  Living our lives was like living in a long house.  We entered as babies at one end, and we exited when your time came.  And in between we moved through this one, great, long room.  Everyone we ever met, and every thought and action lived in that room with us.  Until we made peace with the less agreeable parts of our past they'd continue to heckle us from way down the long house.  And sometimes the really loud, obnoxious ones told us what to do, directing our actions even years later."  That is Louise Penny's gift.  This invitation to make peace.

No sooner had I closed the back cover of Still Life and opened the introduction to Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel did I read an introduction by William Gay, author of The Long Home.  Coincidence?

The literary references, poetry, art, philosophy, spirituality, are all like little gems that delight me as I am reading.  The mystery carries me along.  The characters are lovely archetypes of aspects of self.  I don't want to ruin it for you.  If you read it you'll want to discover your own little treasures, as that is the delight of reading her books.  But here's a few archetypes I enjoyed.

Three Pines as a wonderful place of safety and security where a person could be themselves in a beloved community.  "Beyond that, there was no crime.  No break-ins, no vandalism, no assaults.  There weren't even any police in Three Pines.  Every now and then Robert Lemieux with the local Surete would drive around the Commons, just to show the colors, but there was no need...Three Pines wasn't on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road.  Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in this valley all along.  Anyone fortunate enough to find it once, usually found their way back."  And yet, the safety is breached by a murder that must be solved.  If we are going to do the work, we are going to find something frightening.

Inspector Gamache as the compassionate detective, leading the charge of discovery about that which makes us horrified.  About life, about our world, about others, and worst of all, about ourselves.  As Penney describes him, though, "His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him."  Keeping a tender heart is to not let the shock of truth make us jaded or cynical.  Such an important aspect of healing.  

Inspector Gamache, who also believes that "We choose our thoughts.  We choose our perceptions.  We choose our attitudes.  We may not think so.  We may not believe it, but we do.  I absolutely know we do.  I've seen enough evidence, time after time, tragedy after tragedy.  Triumph after triumph.  It's about choice."

Inspector Gamache who also quotes John Donne "When thou hast done, thou has not done, for I have more." And Abby Hoffman, "We should all eat what we kill.  That would put an end to war."

Clara, the sensitive artist,  "found it easy to forgive most things in most people.  Too easy, her husband Peter often warned.  But Clara had her own little secret.  She didn't really let go of everything.  Most things, yes.  But some she secretly held and hugged and would visit in moments when she needed to be comforted by the unkindness of others."  What we hide from other's needn't be hidden from ourselves.  

Clara, who acts from her tender compassionate place when her friends suffered. "Clara rose with exaggerated calm.  She took Jane in her arms and felt the old body creak back into place.  Then she said a little prayer of thanks to the gods that give grace.  The grace to cry and the grace to watch."

Clara, who wanted to keep her loved one's safe, who we all want inside ourselves and in our lives.  "Most mornings Clara would wake up and watch while he slept, and want to crawl inside his skin and wrap herself around his heart and keep him safe.......Clara was his centre and all that was good and healthy and happy about him.  When he looked at her he didn't see the wild, untamable hair, the billowing frocks, the Dollar-rama store horn-rimmed spectacles.  No. He saw his safe harbor."

Ruth Zardo, the voice that we all want to use, but instead filter.  Ruth the crazy aging poet, unable to mask the stinging truth.

You were a moth

brushing against my cheek 

in the dark.

I killed you,

not knowing

you were only a moth,

with no sting.

Myrna, the retired psychologist, showing us the limits of analysis, and the power of comfort. Myrna, who quotes Oscar Wilde with " there's no sin except stupidity."

Myrna who weaves her observations into wisdom.  "His theory is that life is loss.  Loss of parents, loss of loves, loss of jobs.  So we have to find a higher meaning in our lives than these things and people.  Otherwise we'll lose ourselves."

"I lost sympathy with many of my patients.  After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped.  I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen.  Every week he'd come with the same complaints, "Someone hurt me.  Life is unfair.  It's not my fault."  For three years I'd been making suggestions and for three years he'd done nothing.  Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood.  He wasn't changing because he didn't want to.  He had no intention of changing.  For the next twenty years we would go through this charade.  And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him." 

Myrna, with whom I would take issue.  If only it were simply that people didn't change because they didn't want to.  I believe there are many people who desperately want to change and who struggle with a host of limits and road blocks.  Sometimes the only change possible is acceptance of what is.

And there's much more.  She packs an awful lot into these little gems.  I even feel a bit smug that maybe I know her references to books she invents for the story.  Loss, by Brother Albert Mailloux at LaPorte sounds a lot like Henri Nouwen and L'Arche.

If you've read this far, thanks.  I believe Louise Penny just finished the sixteenth book in the Inspector Gamache series, so I'll be exploring more of them.  Should you decide to embark on the adventure of self-discovery with her, I'd love to hear about the little gems that you find.

 

 

 

Getting Grief Right and The Truth According to Us

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In the year after Roy died I read probably around 100 books.  All I could do was read and knit.  Those books take up the better part of a tall bookshelf in my bedroom.  Some day I may review my grief reading as I now think of it, but it's still too soon.

However, there were two books I read during that time that provide sacred solace, comfort and healing in this journey.  I was reading them simultaneously, as I often do, fiction and nonfiction, without any intention of alignment between the two.  But reading these two at the same time was not a mistake.  Something divine brought this together to crystalize an experience critical to my path toward peace and well being.

The nonfiction book is Getting Grief Right by Patrick O'Malley.  For me, he's got it.  He unlocked the door that allows me to integrate the agony of grief.  Here he describes his own journey through grief when, as a young man, he lost his daughter.  O'Malley was a new therapist at the time, so his perspective was uniquely that of someone who thought he understand the grieving process.  He has gracefully identified the myth of closure and moving on for what it is.  A myth.  That's not how grief works for me.  And apparently, not for many people.

In the introduction he reflects on his own grief process.  

"Finally, I realized that all the analysis was competing for space with my love.  When I stopped judging my mourning so much love, intimacy and grace flowed back into my heart.  There was so much bittersweet joy in reconnecting to the love.

"This moment was almost always the turning point for my clients as well - the moment when they came to understand that their grief was a function of their love.  Who could argue with that?  How could there be shame in their sorrow?  How could their feelings be wrong?  How could their feelings do anything but connect them with the ones they missed.  The feelings, painful as they may be, were honoring.  They were affirming.  Grief could be something to be grateful for.

Once I had been haunted by these questions:  What's wrong with my clients?  What's wrong with me?  What a relief to realize that there was nothing wrong with any of us.  We were not crazy.  We were not wallowing.

Clients would ask, "How long will this take?"  and I would reply, "How deeply did you love?"

The gift that Annie Barrows gave me in her protagonist Jottie, was the gift of seeing this truth come to life.  The gift of all novels.  Here's an excerpt as Jottie, after 15 years, is finally able to see the truth of her first love, and loss and the mystery that had shrouded her grief.

"The pain was terrible, like something being pulled from her body.  Vause was gone; he was gone yesterday, and today, and tomorrow and next year and every day until she died, hundreds and thousands of days she was going to have to go through without him.  She put her hand over her mouth to hold back the sound she was about to make...

"...Between that moment and this, Jottie had time.  Hours.  She stared into the darkness and, diver on the precipice, looked down at the glittering blue. Now.  Now she could.  Carefully schooled in starvation, she allowed herself to conjure Vause. First the whole of him from a distance, then closer his shining eyes his golden hair, and now his beautiful hands against her face.  She dove and the water closed cool around her.  Oh, the luxury of the it, the greedy joy of assembling him rather than banishing him, oh and she was lost in it.  He smiled with one side of his mouth first, and he tucked his head like so when he ran...

Jottie marveled at this lost treasure, this wonder now restored to her.  Hers again, hers forever, never to be taken from her.  Faster and faster she pulled him to her, all of him hers again."

The greedy joy of assembling him instead of banishing him.  Yes.  That.

The Widow's War

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Yesterday I had an inspiring day at the Denver Botanic Gardens with my daughter and her husband and in-laws.  As we strolled toward the parking garage, drunk on the saturation of all things botanical, someone mentioned lunch.  Not to worry, I told myself.  I had already anticipated this and thought it through.

It was about the check, of course.  When I was married I wouldn't have given it a second thought.  The in-laws and my husband and I would split the check, treating the kids.  But now....geez.

Paying only for myself seemed a bit stingy to me, as that would likely leave the in-laws to pay for the kids.  Paying for everyone seemed a bit magnanimous.  Neither did I  want them to feel they had to treat the "poor widow."  So the check came and I took it and looked at Katie's mother-in-law and said, should we split it?  She looked relieved too.

Thus, the essence of a new widow's struggle.  Sally Gunning, in this story, helped me articulate this struggle so that I could make these strange and unfamiliar decisions with confidence.

Her story, of 18th century widow Lyddie, who lost her husband of 20 years to a whale boating accident has given me an honest and hopeful archetype of the widow's experience.  She crafted a story that mirrored for me some of my own conflicts in negotiating widowhood.  It also gave me much to be grateful for.

In 18th century America, it was assumed that a widow would move into the home of her eldest child, or the male heir since, legally, all of she and her husband's property now belonged to that heir.  Lyddie had just one daughter, so all of her property went to her son-in-law, on whom she became dependent for everything.

Gunning drew two traits in Lyddie, a character I grew to love and learn from.  They could, most simply be called strength and courage.  But these were much more nuanced. Self-reliance and emotional independence.

The detail of her circumstances that enraged me most was the sense of entitlement on the part of her son-in-law and other people who had business interests in her property.  As a 21st century woman, I escaped that. I have the financial independence and freedom that I always took for granted.  I no longer take it for granted.  I know many people fought hard and some gave their lives so that I could have this freedom.

But emotional independence?  Not so much.

That's why  Lyddie's story of emotional dependence and subsequent freedom is what most inspired me.

In the story, as you might expect, in rides the man on the white horse, a local attorney who had the knowledge and the means to make Lyddie's problems all go away, if she would just marry him.

Thank you Sally Gunning for creating a character in Lyddie who understood the price she would truly pay in order to live in the illusion of security.  It was clear to Lyddie, if not to everyone else, that marriage would not offer her any more independence than life with her daughter and son-in-law would offer.  Legally, her husband would own her property.

I kept thinking, Lyddie, just  marry the guy.  He's a decent guy!  He'll be good to you!  That's what we all say, right?  But, no, Lyddie discovered that she wanted to live life on her terms, regardless the cost.

Another aspect that I admired was Lyddie's fierce self-reliance.  She simply WOULD NOT accept anything from anyone that she had not worked for.  

I've always considered myself a pretty self-reliant person.  Now I realize that, in marriage, I had grown used the the give and take that living with a partner provides.  I was not self-reliant.  I got married when I was 23 years old, so I hadn't had many years in my life when I'd had to be.

When Roy died, I could feel this cloying neediness creeping in.  This terror that I couldn't handle life on my own.  Lyddie and I faced that head on. Yes we did.  And we both, one baby step at a time, learned about what self-reliance looked like for us.

It's always so fun when a plot line takes a twist that delights. In the end Lyddie ended up owning her home through a series of negotiations that she worked out.  And the 'knight on the white horse' attorney rented a room from her.

It's true, Lyddie didn't do this by herself.  While her community wasn't much support to her, there were a few critical people who understood what she was trying to do and lent a hand. 

That is God.  That is where I learned that my reliance has to be on me and God.  Like Lyddie, I have to believe in this world that I am worthy of provision and do not need to rely on others for my well-being.  And then, the others in my life, are a comfort and a joy.