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.

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.

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.

 

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