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.

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.

That, Above All Else, You Should Not Do

"You are looking outward - and that above all else you should not do now.  Nobody can console and help you.  Nobody.  There is only one single way.  Go into yourself, search for the reason that bids you to write.  Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart.  Acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.  This, above all else, ask yourself in the stillest hour of your darkest night "must I write?'.  Delve into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple 'I must' the build your life according to this necessity and your life, even in its most indifferent and slightest hour, must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it."

Oh, Ernest

I have to begin by saying that I am in no way qualified to write about Ernest Hemingway.  So I'll write about how he affects me.  Because that is the magic of Ernest Hemingway.  For some reason he seems to cast some sort of spell over anyone who takes a close look at him.  Some writers think he's one of the worst celebrated writers ever.  Others think he had the writing life figured out.  All I know is that every time I peer at Ernest he reflects something back to me.  That's magic. Most recently it was the result of a book that I picked up at the library.  My husband likes to go to the library on Sunday afternoons and since I always have a pile of books at home waiting to be read, I try to restrain myself from checking out a bunch of new ones.  So I peruse.  I browse.  For me, it's better than Nordstrom Rack, really, the unbridled delight of the free treats just waiting to be plucked from the local library.

Well, on this particular Sunday I ambled over to the "New Books" section and stumbled on this wonderful coffee-table sized book by Boris Vejdovsky  and Mariel Hemingway Hemingway.  A Life in Pictures.Yes, I checked it out.  Who could resist?  There was Ernest in hall of his sexy masculine splendor staring at me from the cover.  I spent the rest of the day immersed in his life.  And here's where I went on that particular day.

What is the magic of Ernest?  What does he represent for us that we continue to be enamored with his work and his life?  Maybe it's that Hemingway seemed to have a lust for the extraordinary.  Looking at his life in pictures made me think about my own desire for the extraordinary experience in my life.  And I started to day dream about an African Safari, a Spanish bull-fight, a life with intellectuals in Paris, deep sea fishing off the Keyes.  Extraordinary from my frame of reference.  But the more I began to dissect this idea, the more I thought that, really, all of those extraordinary experiences are still made up of fairly ordinary moments.  And perhaps it was the extraordinary that Hemingway worked so hard to tease out of each experience in his writing.  That moment when the adrenaline rushes through an experience and you feel really alive.

But that moment is so elusive.  And perhaps that's why I am drawn to Hemingway.  he chased it and then he captured that moment.  But this particular book seemed to shed some of that glamour and show a Hemingway beyond, below, deeper than that surface persona that he created around himself.  And it made me realize that to the bullfighter, maybe bull-fighting wasn't so extraordinary.  Maybe it was made up of very ordinary days of practicing a repetitive set of movements so that when he went into the ring it was as predictable as possible. Maybe the chase for the extraordinary is elusive because flashes of the extraordinary are always built into and embedded and perhaps even buried in a series of rather ordinary moments.

Because, really, living in Paris during the 20's would have been extraordinary.  Perhaps living there today would be extraordinary.  But it would still be filled with minutes and hours and days and weeks and months of the ordinary.

So I can spend my days fantasizing about how great my writing would be if I had the same extraordinary life that Hemingway had.  Or I can practice, as I believe he did, seeing the extraordinary, teasing it out, getting it down.

Black Milk by Elif Shafak

I recently finished reading Black Milk by Elif Shafak and found so much to digest there.  In identifying the many facets of herself as "Thumbelinas" Elif helped me to identify with and honor all of the different aspects of my personality.  She also helped me to laugh at them and not take myself so seriously.  Anyone who can help me do that gets five stars! But I have read books that have helped me to do that before.  This book was just sort of a reminder platform to jump off into something else:  understanding which those aspects contribute to my writing life and which ones are trying to hold me back.  She deals with these complex questions in her present experience of pondering motherhood, all the while referencing fairly well known women writers and the glimpses of their choices around motherhood that we get to see.

I have been a mother for nearly 23 years.  I still find it demanding, exhilarating, heartbreaking, and one of my greatest achievements.  I didn't discover my literary self until my oldest was 14, and so did not struggled with the choice of becoming a mother v becoming a writer.  (Though I think Elif would agree that it doesn't have to be a choice).  However, the idea that my children are now grown so I can devote all of my time and energy to writing is a bit of an illusion.  Even grown children have taken up residence in a mother's heart, teasing out all aspects of our being:  nurturing, caregiving, empowering (why don't people every talk about a mother's role as that of empowering her children?)  The myth of being free of anything and unencumbered to write is just that, a myth, an illusion.  Whether it be a significant partner, children, a business, social contributions or any number of fractions, there will always be parts of ourselves that take us away from writing.

Be gentle with them, Elif taught me.  Humor them.  Let them come and go as they please.  But don't ever let any one of them completely take over your soul.  Then you will not write.  That is what I have been doing.  Letting them, one at a time, take up residence in my soul.  One would move in for awhile, then get bored and go away and I'd invite the other.  Elif has names for each of her Thumbelina's and I'm sure you could come up with names for yours.  I am acknowledging my own Thumbelina's and with a heavy sigh and a bit of throwing my hands in the air and rolling my eyes, accepting their place in my life.  But they no longer get to control.  As Elif says, this will not be an anarchy!

If You Like Words, You'll LOVE This

I'd like to introduce you to this lovely book, Logodaedaly by author Erzsebet Gilbert and illustrator Sherise Talbott.  Speaking of fun with story!  In this beautifully written compendium of archane and abandoned words, Erzebet takes us on a linguistic journey filled with whimsey, fantasy and exploration.  Sherise complements the written word with a style both childlike and sophisticated. The title alone is such a fetching example of what the book contains that it's sheer aptitude is delightful.  Here's what Erzsebet has to say about logodaedaly*:

"Now the Reader shall find the Morphology of the word, this being "How-It-Came-to-Be:  its Etymological Roots in the language of some-aught country or another, whence come various peoples from whom the word is stolen, and its Subsequent Form-History in English, changing as it is warped or misspoken, misspelled or perverted by literary whim and crafty talk.    Therefore:

logodaedaly

[adapted late Latin logodaedalia...from logos...word, reason, or speech; and daedalus...cunning, or related to Daedalus, mythic architect of the Minoan Labyrinth and creator of the wax wings of Icarus]

*the book is filled with Greek and Latin version of the word in their original symbols which I don't have t patience to look up on my computer, if they're even there, so you will find the ellipses (...) in place of those versions of the word.

Intrigued?  You can get Erzsebet's book at Matter Bookstore, in Fort Collins, CO or from Wolverine Farm Press' website.