Life Itself

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Life itself will bring you to your knees….but you probably already knew that. And I don’t want to spoil this poignant movie for you by giving you the rest of the beautiful quote that you will hear if you decide to hang in there until the end.

One of my minor joys in life is recommending a movie or book to someone who I know will get it the same way that I did. Who will laugh in the same place and cringe at the same scenes, and grieve with the characters the same way that I do. Usually it’s one of my kids. So at Christmas dinner this year, as we all shared our opinion on best movie of the year I insisted that everyone watch “Life Itself.”

Side note, I also have a high tolerance for grief, anger, malice, the darker or more painful aspects of human nature that a movie can offer, if they leads to a redemption at the end. I don’t mean happily ever after. By redemption I mean that in some way the protagonist finds change, transformation, hope as a result of their role in the story.

My daughter texted me the day after Christmas to let me know she was watching it. I turned it on for the second time, knowing I would be about 30 minutes behind her. It was like Thanksgiving food. Better the second time when the sense are more settled and can enjoy the flavors.

I almost felt the text coming before it did. “OK I have 20 minutes left and so far nothing redemptive. How can you watch this? It is sooooo sad,” she texted.

“Wait for it,” I texted back.

For the movie, like life, rewards us for staying in the story. Ten minutes later another text. “How can you watch this and not cry your eyes out?” I did cry my eyes out, I texted back.

The message I took away from the movie (among the many that it offered) is that life is so much deeper and richer and larger than we can see when we engage only with our suffering. And that my role when I find myself on my knees is simply to stay in the story, whatever it may present to me. And to bring to the story whatever I am there to bring. And to trust that the deep familial roots of those who came before me, and the strong wings of those who will follow me, will continue to weave into the fabric of the tapestry a redemption that I could not see from that small painful place where I collapsed.

For my story neither starts nor ends with my life, though I often think it does. And in the darkest hours of suffering, when it feels as though life has surely crumbled at my feet beyond any hope of repair, I must stay. And sometimes just watch and wait. And see what will happen. Because what we think is the end is never really the end. And Life Itself will surprise us.

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.

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 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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Risk of Love is Always Worth Taking

"Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain.  The greatest pain comes from leaving.  when the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved spouse departs to another country or dies...the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving.  and love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair.  We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.

Henri J.M. Nowen