In the World of Yes

 Of all the “what ifs,” how many “at least it didn’t _____” are there?
So many near-misses, so many itcouldhavebeenworse moments in life. This fractured place of maybe-ness is a grey, foggy place. I like concrete reality better, but sometimes we fall into the grey patches, or they just find us. We cannot stay long in these spots because, well, they aren’t real.

 

“Love is a Place”

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places
yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds —ee cummings

How do we keep on when everything appears … too much? Or not enough? Yes is a good word to practice. Yes, I will go out for lunch with you. You find the crowbar inside yourself that gets you off the couch, out of the bed, away from the comfort of home…away from sorrow’s welcoming hug. Yes, I will volunteer at the library. How to invoke the crowbar? One of the best voices in my arsenal of YES is Augusten BurroughsTHIS IS HOW: SURVIVING WHAT YOU THINK YOU CAN’T.

“…all of us are made not only of what we have but of what we lost. And loss is not a subtraction. As an experience, it is an addition. Even when we lose a leg or an arm, there’s not less of us but more. Human experience weighs more than human tissue.” -Augusten Burroughs

We aren’t made to be happy all the time–we just aren’t wired that way. Grieving is light years away from simply unhappy, but my point is that there is a world of Yes. We can’t live there all of the time–probably shouldn’t–but it’s an important place to visit.

Beating Hearts

They look so strong up close, almost like trees.
Remember how we used to walk around the yard in the early frosty spring?
Remember how you called their young shoots “little celeries?” Or was that
me?
I don’t remember now, and you aren’t here to ask.
From farther away they are delicate…fragile, floating into the new season almost first (right after the crocuses).
I need to look up the scientific name of these beauties. Maybe
Then I will begin to understand–
to understand how light can turn things alive,
to understand how color can have infinite hues,
to understand how the texture of green feels in sunlight.

I cannot look at these bleeding hearts without feeling your breath on my neck
your laugh in the sunset
your chest hugged against  mine
in time
beating hearts. 

 

 

 

New Names Needed

We need a doula for widow/ers. And a midwife also. Help at the beginning and ending.

 

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The widow/er midwife would help with the immediate stuff; choose the funeral parlor (Isn’t it odd that they are still called parlors?),  cancel the credit cards, make a Facebook Memorial page, arrange the funeral/ceremony, make sure the widow/er doesn’t drown themselves in alcohol or sleeping pills or forget to eat for days at a time. It would be the midwife’s job, all of that horror. Then the doula would come in and help with the ongoing horror like receiving guests and cards and flowers and listening to everyone say how they are so sorry. The doulas would be right there by our side when we break down at the funeral and practically have to be carried out. She would stick around for the sifting of the insurance and medical bill nightmare. How would we know when we didn’t need the doula anymore?

We wouldn’t. She will be so enlightened that she would know when it was time to leave.

The doula would know that there will always be another person to help. And there is.

The person who helps the most is our own selves. That deep primal part of us who knows that survival isn’t dependent on healing so we better get to work.

What would we name a widow/er midwife and a widow/er doula? If we name them maybe they can exist.

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Advice Sharing

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They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.
Andy Warhol 

 

Time heals all wounds…No. It really doesn’t. We heal ourselves and help each other heal. Time has very little to do with it.

This is from a BBC Series called “Like Minds.” It’s worth the watch.

 

 

How can we change the way people perceive grieving?

Words, Words, Words

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Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words. (Hamlet IIii)

It’s easy to forget that other people exist when a spouse dies. No one can know what you are feeling–can they? What about other widows? We know that no words can comfort or explain, but because we are widowed we have a sense of what NOT to say.

People shouldn’t assume that everyone’s default setting is theism. “At least he is in heaven…it’s all part of God’s plan…his spirit is always looking down on you.” That last one really creeps me out. First of all, if Kent is in some spirit world, I would hope he has more enlightened things to do than peep at me. I don’t believe in a heaven or hell or god or gods so it doesn’t help that this imaginary being presumably is in control of our fate. It’s like saying, “Don’t worry–Odin totally has him covered up in Valhalla.”

Most times we are speechless when we hear of another’s loss. That’s because we cannot empathize with it, cannot understand it. I often wish I could go back in time and say just the right thing to make someone feel better; I am not a quick wit. I am a writer, and I need time to process my thoughts. I came across this great op-ed piece called “Dear New Widow: Remember That You are Never Alone” by Danelle Boyles teNyenhuis today. She talks about what she would have liked to say to a new widow. There are some beautiful sentiments in this piece. Here is one:

I’m trying to make my life meaningful as a tribute to the love we shared. You will find what works for you.

The phrase a “new widow” has me thinking. It will be six years this Thanksgiving that Kent died. Does that make me an “old” widow? A “middle-aged” widow? Time is far too strange. Some days it feels like he died yesterday and other days it feels like he was never really there–that he was part of some fabulous fairytale I concocted in my mind. Another question I have about words is grief versus mourning. I found a website

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called Funeral Basics (SOMEone had to to it) and it describes grief as internal and mourning as external. Apparently, without the public act of mourning the grief we feel inside becomes “carried” grief. This prevents us from dealing with loss. More on this in next week’s post. I’ll leave you with more words. Sometimes they are all we need.

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love. –Washington Irving

 

 

 

I answer the heroic question, ‘Death where is thy sting?’ with ‘It is here in my heart and mind and memories. –Maya Angelou

Beauty, Perception, and Bears. Oh, my.

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Grief is not linear. There is no start here, move along the squares, and make it to the “end.” That’s why it feels good to do mundane things sometimes–tasks that can be accomplished.

Finish the laundry and enjoy the empty banging sound of the dryer door.

Wipe the counter clean and look at the lack of crumbs.

Fill the empty bird feeder and watch the birds. Actually, don’t. It’s spring and the birds have plenty to eat and the beautiful bears are waking up. Oh, to hibernate. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

I have often wondered, with the technological magic of medicine, why they can’t put the patient in hibernation, do all the nasty radiation treatments, then wake them up weeks later when it’s all over. According to New Scientist, “…it is not technically possible to hibernate a human in a safe and controlled way.” But some researchers believe this is a possibility in the near future. 

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Of course we want an easy answer to end suffering. But as I tell my students from time to time, “It’s nice to want.” The facetious tone usually makes them stop whining.

But whining and wanting miracles is part of grieving. I have literally stamped my feet while crying and yelling, “It’s not FAIR! I WANT MORE TIME!” Why do murderers and rapists get to live and good people have to die? Why do I have to be a widow and other people get decades with their partners? Why indeed.

“So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand.”

Will Durant

But can we understand why something as beautiful as this:

cell
osteosarcoma cell phalloidin

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can kill?

 

 

 

Can we understand the power of trees? Or the persistence of beauty?

 

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It’s not about understanding. It’s about perceiving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What did Blake say?

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. –“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

 

Why is it that poetry can give us understandings that logical prose cannot?

 

In her amazing poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” Tracy K. Smith asks,

And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure
 
That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? 

 

“Poetry surprises and deepens our sense of the ordinary. Poetry tells us that the world is full of wonder, revelation, consolation, and meaning. ”
Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate (2017– )

Beautiful, Broken Things

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift.
The work of life is to develop it.
The meaning of life is to give your gift away. –David Viscott

One of the things I miss most about my husband is taking care of him. I lost my purpose when I lost him, one purpose anyway.

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If I couldn’t take the cancer on  myself, I could at least soothe Kent’s fear and pain. I tried in so many ways to comfort him, but what could I really do? All I wanted was to get rid of the cancer and see Kent healthy and happy again. If I couldn’t do that at least I could encourage him. Every single day after the ninety minute ride (one-way) to Memorial Sloane Kettering’s Sleepy Hollow Treatment Center I would say, “Thank you, my love, for getting in the car today.” They had to design a mask to keep his head still while they tried their best to kill what was killing him. Gamma rays, x-rays, charged particles, all forms of radiation aimed at my husband’s face. He was never a patient man to begin with, so lying there waiting during radiation treatments were horrific for him. Every day he would reply to me, “Just because I did it today doesn’t mean I’ll do it again tomorrow. We’ll just see.”

IMG_1294The part of me that was his caretaker was lost when he died. I was broken in so many ways, I had no idea how to Humpty-Dumpty myself back together. With the help of Hospice and my sisters and friends I am still here, but I wouldn’t say that I am whole. The broken bits sometimes feel like the dead palm fronds of a tree that just won’t fall off by themselves.

Other times they feel like holes–like no place things that don’t know they aren’t someplace.

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But most often, my broken bits feel like sharp shards of beautiful pottery.

They used to be part of a whole, but now they are useless by themselves. IMG_1704

But who says beautiful things have to be useful? Do I go to an art museum to find out how to bake bread (a pretty useful task), or to bathe in the beauty of a Remedios Varo surrealistic world?

 

 

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If death isn’t surreal, I do not know what is.

I keep many broken things. IMG_1707They remind me that even though I am broken, I am still beautiful too. IMG_1705

Nightmares and Daydreams

IMG_4259.JPGI just woke up from a nightmare. Another nightmare.They come in varying degrees, like all dreams, but the basic format is the same. I’m in a huge house and there are so many people there that it must be a party. Everything is great until it’s not. All of a sudden there are people to be fed and no clean dishes to be found. There are piles of clothes that need washing and I am naked (or dressed inappropriately for some reason) and I can’t find any clean clothes.

Then I look for my phone to call Kent (who, of course is still alive in my dream) but I can’t find my phone, my purse, or my way out of the house. Then an old-fashioned phone appears—a landline of the black rotary Dragnet variety—but I can’t use it because I don’t know Kent’s number. “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

There were overpopulated giant house cats in this particular nightmare, but I doubt their importance to my point; the dead are never really gone from our minds.

Some dreams are sticky like cobwebs, while others fade away before I can get my feet on the floor. Nightmares are usually of the sticky variety. I used my tried and true anti-anxiety mantra of naming the moment.

I am standing on the deck. It is made of cement. The wind is blowing. There 

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is a palm tree to my right. It has as many dead fronds as live ones. They sound like a witch’s cackle. There are seagulls in the air, and I bet they don’t dream. Deep breaths. No nightmare sounds as scary as it feels, and listening to other people’s dreams is about as interesting as waiting in line at the DMV with nothing to read.

The daydreams are lighter, like ice chips. When you are just out of surgery and can’t actually drink yet. But an ice chip melts so quickly it doesn’t really satisfy the thirst. When I am near the ocean, the mother, I daydream of Kent coming back from a walk along the shore. He loved to explore. when I have trouble making a decision, I wonder what he would say.

I feel closest to Kent when I am near mother, mother ocean. I go as often as I can.

 

The trick with shaking out of a nightmare (or a daydream) is to get out of bed instead of turning over.IMG_1277

Walking

IMG_1211Trees and humans have much in common. It’s not just about how they grow, or where, but about what shadows they cast. It’s not just about the individual, but about what kind of light they shed and and protect and make shadows of.

They aren’t as silent as they appear. If I stay still I can hear the trees creaking toward spring with a little help from the wind. It’s all connected. How can it be any other way? There is no disconnection, not even after death. We feel loss and sorrow and despair, but the dead do not. I like the way Phillip Pullman describes death in His Dark Materials.

“When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart… If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that looks like…they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything…but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

It reconciles the spiritual and the scientific. It connects.

As I was walking yesterday and smelling the skunk of spring, I stopped to take a few pictures of trees and shadows with my phone and I remembered how it used to be an extension of my body, like another limb. When Kent was sick, the phone was never anywhere I couldn’t reach it. Doctor calls with test results, pharmacy calls with filled prescriptions (or insurance problems), treatment schedules, appointments with specialists… . I needed my phone. After he died, I continued the habit without realizing it. Someone had to point it out. So I practiced. I went to my friend’s house and told her I was going to try and leave the phone in the other room for as long as I could. I sat down, nervously looking over my shoulder at it every few minutes. She finally turned my face toward her and said, “Honey, if that phone rings and it’s Kent, we have bigger problems to worry about than breaking your habits.” Only my sister-friend could have made me smile back then.

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I learned to put my phone away. I have turned off the notifications for almost everything because I am coming to love silence.

If we do not bend, we will break.

We must change and adapt in order to live. Just surviving is not enough. There is a beautiful book about this called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (no relation). It’s not a “how to” book for widows; it’s a novel. In the pages of fiction there are great truths about reality. Who are we without stories? It’s a book about the importance of art in our lives. In it, a symphony and acting group travel through a post-apocalyptic world.

“The Symphony has a motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, ‘Survival is insufficient.'”

The move between existing because we have to and learning to live again is not an easy path. It will be six years this Thanksgiving since Kent died, and I am still learning how to walk it.

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The Guilt of Beauty

Five years ago, when Kent died, I felt like I had no right to beauty.
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I used to love the gray and cloudy days. It appropriately reflected my sorrow. Noticing beauty made me feel guilty somehow.

I would look up at the sky and see the brightness of blue fade into the horizon line, and I would breathe it in. I would watch the soft mystery of clouds temper the geometry of trees, and I would breathe it in. Then I would stop myself.

What right did I have to experience this in a world without Kent? What right did IT have to even EXIST in a world without him? A small sob of guilt, a glance inward, and I would stare down at the ground where I thought my view belonged.
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I am getting better at not only seeing beauty but letting it help heal me.

I was teaching high school when 9/11 happened. Everyone was distraught, kids were crying, crisis counselors came in, the televisions were turned off. I remember trying to soothe them. I remember saying, “No matter the tragedy, the world will go on–we will go on. Babies will still be born and people will still fall in love. We cannot forget the good.” I needed to open myself up to the possibility of good, and once I did that nature let me follow her.

Being outside helps me to remember to let in the magical. I went for a walk yesterday and the snow crunching sounded like the soundtrack to the the gray, wild skies. I was watching the ground and letting my mind wander to all kinds of sadness. “I have to watch the ground,” I thought, “if I don’t I’ll fall  on this mess of snow, ice, and mud.” Then I stopped. Then I looked up at the squirrel leaping through the bare trees. I heard the flow of the creek forcing its way through the ice. Of course I have to look down sometimes. But I can always stop, stop and look up.

Beauty will not be ignored for long.

“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses. ”Colette

birdhouseThe guilt of beauty comes from a disconnection. We want to feel our pain–and we must–but watching a chickadee build a nest in the cheap, ornamental Home Goods birdhouse instead of the expensive made-to-order chickadee house also deserves a smile.

We cannot separate from the beautiful nature of this reality and expect to move through it in any healthy way. We have no right to ignore the aesthetic.

If I notice the clash of asphalt shadows with the morning sunlight snow, I am praying.

By living a writing life, I am giving thanks.

“For me it has become a life that awakens to birdsong in early morning, that lingers with sunlight in late afternoon. For me it is a life that slows down to touch each moment, a life that deepens from an inner source.” –Susan Tiberghien

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I do not believe we are here to ignore our suffering, but we cannot be here to ignore living either.

What forms of guilt have you felt/are you feeling?
What happens when you take the time to notice beauty?