All posts by Corinne

On a Leaving Day Anniversary

I ran across this entry recently, and even though today is not Min’s leaving day anniversary, it reminded me of how much, and long, those tenderest feelings surface with just the slightest invitation – grief, and beauty, intertwined…..

 

9/4/a.m.
A short walk, but some good things spotted: a pileated woodpecker overhead, and a loon on its way to the lake. Gentle and warming air, crickets throbbing. The waters calm, a thin mist skating toward the sun. A found pear, dropped from a neighbor’s tree, only slightly bruised, and delicious.

At home, some sunflowers have been felled by squirrels who are after seed. The scented gladiolas are delicate; moon-colored petals shifting in a small breeze.

And….its your day again. Your leaving day. All I want to do is lie in the sunny window, listen to grasshoppers throb, watch the pale sky, and rest, and wait. For you. Or for whatever is left of you – the wispy breath of the mystery of your having been, and having gone.

I don’t know what I’d call this drift of feelings – sadness – or loneliness – or a delicate anger (if such a thing exists). But it feels quiet, and patient. Blessed, and mystified. A wordless emptiness: maybe the silence a bee must feel when the nectar has been sucked right out of the flower it’s working on, and the bee is full. It has to move on. But, Oh, for that instant it was fully alive, drinking the juice right up, and it was enough. It was so very, very good.

Maybe it’s surrender, that quiet emptiness – not like giving up, but giving in. Giving over. To a terrible truth and its beautiful grace.

Well….I’m going to do it, lie here in the sun, in the wild silence, and wait. And be. Now, Bodi sleeps downstairs. The house is quiet. Grasshoppers sing and scritch their end-of-summer song all around the house.

On Jane Brody’s NYT article, Understanding Grief (1/15/18)

 

Grief has taught me so many things: how precious our close relationships are, even after they come apart. And how love is all that matters, really – we are all awash with love, alight with love, shaped and transformed by love. Taught, daily, by love. After all, who knows what will happen to the world? To anyone we know? To us? Maybe the best we can do is soften the rough edges of this motley, ragged and curious journey – with love.

It’s been over 7 years since my dear Aunt Min left this world. Hard to believe. Her death, and the continuing presence of our time together, and our little “love room,” still inform my life in many ways. I am here in Louisiana, for a while, because of her. I make my way forward with a kind of feisty humor, with her example. She was certainly not a saint, or at least not any more than the rest of us are everyday saints. But she was alive, curious, open-minded, and yet faithful to her beliefs and observations. She was spirited. She worked hard. She loved, and marveled at, life.

Jane Brody’s article on understanding grief in the Personal Health section of the New York Times (Jan. 15th, 2018) offers a new perspective on loss. As ragged and raw as it can be, Brody notes, “grief is not a problem to be solved or resolved. Rather, it’s a process to be tended and lived through in whatever form and however long it may take.”

Brody recommends two authors who write about grief and encourage us not to hurry, or try to “fix,” the problem. Megan Devine (“It’s OK that you’re not OK”) and Julia Samuel (“Grief Works: stories of life, death, and surviving”) offer perspectives that can shift our personal experiences and our cultural expectations of grief. Devine hopes that “if we can start to understand the true nature of grief, we can have a more helpful, loving, supportive culture.”

As Brody notes, relatively few of us know what to say or do that can be truly helpful to a relative, friend or acquaintance who is grieving. In fact, relatively few who have suffered a painful loss know how to be most helpful to themselves.

In my own journey, grief is not just a “wrong” or “problematic” thing, but a terrible grace that continues to shed a rarefied light on every step I take into the future. In the lingering love room, I continue to live – with loss, with sadness, with disbelief, with the presence of my beloved who is gone (but not quite totally). Perhaps, as a culture, we are shifting toward a gentler and more realistic take on this mysterious reality in which our “love rooms” soften our journeys forward, our beloveds shine their particular light upon us, and we are never really alone.

On Choosing Life

 

 
After three years, and several “phases” of lingering at the love room door with my aunt, I began to lean forward instead of backward. I still loved our time together, was still paying attention to, and grateful for, little whispers of her presence. And yet – I began to feel a need to lift up out of the fog of grief. I needed a life. I was, after all, still here. I spent time reading about what others had experienced of loss and holding on, and letting go. The following is a little letter written at the beginning of the fourth year without my aunt.

1/31/14
Lately I’m reading more memoirs of grief to see what people have said about this rarefied time when we (those of us left behind, and what’s left of our beloveds) still show up, somehow together, still hanging on.

There are some interesting observations: sleep changes (check); dry mouth (check); sinus issues (all those tears, waiting to be shed); and a “romance” with the lost one, so much brighter than the prickly, tedious chore of loving someone who’s alive. Well…I guess I have been doing that with you, with all these little notes left at the love-room door.

But what is real, anyway? Even the sharpest intellect, the bravest soul, might feel the presence of the beloved after they’re gone. Isn’t the web we make together real? Isn’t the rupture a loss? Wouldn’t part of us still be intertwined, and regret the tearing away?

Another note – that the more people who share the loss, the gentler it becomes. There are more folks to hold up the “presence,” and the absence, of the beloved. Could that be why this is so constant for me? I am carrying you, and your loss, mostly by myself. And could you be insistent on leaving a little footprint on a heart – specifically mine? Could you have worried you’d be forgotten?

One more important point – that the survivor, the traveler of that gray desert landscape, has to finally choose to live, to fling open a door, a heart, to what is still here. What courage that must take. But also common sense, for who could stand facing a whole life that was gray, drab, halfhearted?

Can I let the silky love-room walls flutter around my shoulders, catch my eye, and still walk toward what is mine alone?

I hope that your way forward, if such a thing exists, is gentle and kind. I hope you can settle into rest. I hope you are swimming in love – that gigantic, quivering sea that is so much more than we know. I hope you can see that I’m happy; that things are okay; that I still love the world, even though you’re not in it anymore; that my breath still sighs with love for you every once in a while.

But I am choosing to move ahead. I don’t think this will shut you out; but it could move me toward what we were always about – the deep and thriving resilience of following what’s real. I still want to live. I have lessons to learn, hands to hold, mornings to love. Skin and organs and thoughts. I am something you’re not anymore. Here.

On the Hard Work of Love

 

This morning, Bodi and I walked out into yet another frigid day. It was minus 16 degrees. It took us a while to leave the house. I had to snuggle him awake. And set out his food. While he ate, I put on silk long-underwear, my fleece overalls, a fleece vest. Then the full-length down coat was buttoned all the way up; my fuzzy winter aviator hat, pulled on tight. The woolen scarf, wrapped tightly around my neck and lower face, came next. Then, the insulated winter boots, with the bright orange ice-grippers pulled over the bottoms. Then I put on Bodi’s warm winter doggie coat; and then his booties. He’s never so happy about this, but he submits anyway. Wearing them, he won’t have to stop every few steps and hold up a frozen paw, or try to chew ice balls from between his pads, or lick away the road salt that burns his skin. Once his booties were all velcrod on, I tucked his package of snacks in one of my pockets, his leash in the other, and pulled on my own down mittens. Then out we went, into the pink snow as first light colored up the sky. It was a lot of work just for a doggie walk. But this is what love does.

It struck me that even after a beloved dies, the work of love continues.

In scrolling through the Letters from the Love Room book, I spotted the word “work” mentioned 120 times. The work of love. The work of grief. The work of holding on, and of letting go. The work of going forward.

So many times, I wasn’t very good at the work of loving Aunt Min. I had a lot of hopes, some of them based on fact. I knew my aunt cared about me. I expected to be pretty good at loving her. I expected her to be pretty good at loving me. But it wasn’t always easy. I wish I could ask her now, across the fading love room threshold, how she thinks we did. I still have some regrets – I wish I’d trusted myself more, and maybe set some limits on how much I did. I wish I had been able to ask her how she felt about being so near her end-time. Knowing my aunt, I’m pretty sure she was working at love too. In the last year, there were ways she softened, gave up a bit of her fierce independence and let me make choices she might not have made on her own.

These tensions and struggles and accommodations were not the best parts of our love room together, but I think they were some of the most instructive, and strengthening. They were the ways I learned about what it takes to be human, to be open and vulnerable, to do the work of real relationship.

In his conversation with On Being radio host Krista Tippett, writer Alain du Botton described this work: “Love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each others’ needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is.” And, he says, “we’re going to do out best.” This “acceptance of ourselves as flawed creatures,” is what love really is.

Psychologist Therese Rando talks about work, too, as a primary challenge of dealing with loss: “Grief is work. It requires the expenditure of both physical and emotional energy. It is no less strenuous a task than digging a ditch or any other physical labor…..Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable.”

In these years after Min’s death, the work of love has become intertwined with the work of grief. The work of relationship continues on. But it’s a luminous and rarefied work these days, not taking as much effort, tinged with the sweetness of memories that are constantly teaching me what love is, and preparing me for the work of continuing  to love the world.

Back at home now after our walk, I sip tea and make some notes. Bodi has licked ice balls from his fuzzy legs and is sighing into sleep next to me. The sun has slipped through trees and is lighting up the walls; the sky is blue, the air a bit warmer – up to 3 degrees! Oh, there is so much to love.

I am constantly being taught, refined, ground down, transmuted into a version of myself that can bear, and share, more love. For this, I am ever grateful.

On Forgetting

 

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll forget you. Certainly, my memories have changed some, shifted with time. I can’t quite recall exactly how you sounded when I talked with you, or how it felt to hug your little bird-like body close to my heart. And I’m afraid of that. Afraid of losing all that I have left. I wonder where you are now, though the question feels too tender and scary to ask. Still, there’s something I trust about our togetherness that overrides the fear. Even this cold morning, you were there.

12/17/17
This morning I walked out into the cold but glowing early day. It was only 4 degrees as light started to seep into the sky. I was bundled up, hurrying to stay warm, but then had to stop and stare. I was captured by the “glow” – the clear sky just shrugging off darkness, the first rosy- lavender blush of light, the snow lit up all around me. The air, the colors, so rarefied and pure.

At the lake, the whole big stretch of snow-covered ice was white. Ducks crowded at the little stream where it poured into the lake, the only open and moving water left. Mallards and mergansers jockeyed for space, sharing body-warmth. Steam puffed up from the water all around them.

I thought about moving away – about seeking out warmth and easier winters, and how much I’d miss this rare and quiet light, the cold wonders of an early winter day in Maine. And about how some things get inside us, become part of who we are. So that no matter where I go, or how long I stay away, these winter mornings walking through snow, stunned by first light blushing over the world, have seeped into my cells, taken residence in my heart.

I am forever marked by the wonder. I may move away, but I can never forget. Just like I’ve been stamped by the wretched mysterious impossibility of losing you, and of the happy sweetness of having been close while you were still here.

Small Bits of Happiness

 

Ultimately, grief never “wins.” No matter how wrenching the loss, how impossible it feels to navigate the new territory of a world without our beloveds, joy always brings us back home. We are made for wonder, made for joy. And it will capture us for small moments, bringing us back to life.

The following are two little “happiness” moments that recently captured me.

 

11/29/17
A glorious walk this afternoon with Mary Lou and our dogs. We start out in sunny warmth, then smudgy glowering clouds roll in, spit snow and rain. The sky is a patchwork of light and dark.  And the dogs are wild. Gatsby finds an old tennis ball, and rolls over and over and over it, his short 12-year-old legs pumping the air. He is having so much fun. And Bodi runs off through the fields and into woods, comes back much later licking his chops, having eaten something dead and disgusting. The dogs are old, but they can still have fun.

Mary Lou and I laugh at the vagaries of aging, so many things falling apart! We laugh at our cuckoo dogs who glory over disgusting things to eat, or old rotten tennis balls, getting as smelly as possible, and how much work it will be to clean them up.

The land is sear – the beaten grasses flaxen in a new and whipping wind – the hills sooty, the fields wide open. The dogs run as we laugh, chasing each other in loopy circles. All of us are crazed with the sheer beauty of it all. All of us are happy-wild.

 

12/3/17 evening
Bodi and I walk out in the near-dark after sunset. There is still a tinge of light, but all the colors have bled out of this day. The road is silent under the starlit sky. Orion, the Dipper, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades hang overhead, waiting for the moon. The ragged winter-beaten grass crunches under our feet.

We feed the horses apples as the Great Moon slips above the horizon. There is no sound but us – the horses, huffing and crunching and stomping the ground; Bodi peeing on the fence post; my breath, puffing up toward the moon. Bodi and I walk back across the field in its light. It feels like swimming in silver.

I am just another animal, making my way through the silver-blue secrets of a big-moon night – the horses and Bodi and I, finding our way, watching our feet move over the colorless ground.

We are beheld, beloved and moon-blessed and stunned. What more could we want? What more could any of us want?

All These Familiar Things

 

On a recent trip to Louisiana, I found more links to family, and place. Over several years of going back, grief has softened some with these renewed connections. Even though my aunt is gone, even though so many people are gone, they linger all around me. The following is a little journal entry from my latest visit.

 

9/23/17 a.m.

A longish and good and sweet walk on the levee in early morning heat.

So many things are familiar – hawks, scolding from the woods; little blue herons, sinking down into a damp field; the muskrat hole in the muddy bank of a ditch; white silky-petaled mallows blooming all along the batture edge; rising sun shining on water in the low woods. And heat – the suffocating, clinging, womb-warm, prickling heat. Cicadas drone in trees. A few walkers nod greetings on this early morning.

Here I am, again, stricken with the spell of such longing and sweet love – my body so happy; my bones and skin and organs so surprisingly at home. Here, I was so welcomed and loved, just because I was born. I am swamped with a cellular happiness, a visceral and maybe even genetic joy. For so many years, so many generations, this is where we’ve belonged.

All my people
have sprouted up here.
All my people rise up inside me,
and feel so right at home.

After a while, flush with the heat, I walk back through town, and pass the old man with the pink hat who sits on the porch in his red flannel shirt. We wave at each other, and I imagine that he wonders about me – where Bodi is, why I haven’t been here for months. But he is also just glad to lift a hand and be noticed; to be remembered. We notice and remember each other.

Near the car, I stop to watch swirling vultures over the orchard woods – floating, turning, slipping away. Suddenly, a hawk drops down from an orange tree, settles on the emerald ground, looking around for breakfast, then sails back up into another small tree to hide. The buzzards come back, circling and shifting. I just stare and stare.

On Holidays, and Left-Over Love

11/21/17

For some reason, you’ve been close by lately. Just a little glimmer, a little warmth – like the pale winter sun slipping over the bed as I sit for my morning tea and note-making.

Have I called you back? With the book, and with all my thoughts as I get ready to go south for a while?

Are you peeking in? Do all of you who have moved on shift a little closer in the holiday times? Do the walls around realities and time – here, and now, and the past – thin a bit so we can lean toward each other fondly?

My mom so loved holidays. I think of her as I get ready to cook – her hands, chopping up veggies for a roux, arm reaching over to stir something sizzling in a pan. All those little chores my body remembers as I press a knife down on the chopping board.

And the phone call I’d make to tell you hello, see what you were up to for the day. I can still hear your voice. I wonder how long that will be true.

Down South, I know the Louisiana family will be gathering around. Some of them are working on holiday food baskets for local folks in need. They’ll be busy with details, then gathering to eat. You might be keeping an eye on them, too. You might know that they’re still doing okay.

It’s nice to feel you around. But I’m not sure how much I need you these days. Maybe I’ve inhaled, absorbed, digested, so many bits of you that you’ve settled into my cells, and I will just keep carrying you around. But it’s still so sweet, to feel you nearby. If holidays exist wherever you are, then I’m sending you much joy, Little Honey. You’re still a pale, warm sun I can settle into, and love.

 

The book, and completions, and family

 

 

10/20/17 a.m.

Well – your book arrived last night. I wonder what you’d think. It looks pretty good. The cover has several photos of you, with Keet’s house in the background. It feels like a kind of completion for us, or at least, a step in that direction. I wanted to give it to you, this little homage, this little collection of memories. I don’t know how it will affect me, as the reality of finishing it sinks in, but I’m glad to share the book with our family – a little thank-you for taking me in, a little gift to those who have waited at their own love room doors after loss.

In New Orleans, I took the book into a not-so-welcoming bookstore to see if they’d carry it. I tried to tell a clerk the background story, and about our family – how so many generations grew up in one place; how Papa worked in the school system for decades, and the school is named for our relatives. Then a customer interrupted to say she was from the Ama branch of that family. She talked about Uncle Dick, and the judges and lawyers, the so many familiar names. We ended up laughing and hugging, while the impassive clerk looked on.

I’m not sure if they will carry the book or not, but it was a sweet thing, to stumble over one more link to you and the past.

Well – not much else to say, but I love you. I always did, and still do. I am still stumbling over little bits of your trail, even now.

The Book

 

Dear Friends –
It is with much gratitude that I can announce the publication of my new memoir,
Letters from the Love Room: mapping the landscape of loss. The book is composed of letters written to my 102 year old aunt following her death, and maps out the trail of our connection, our “love room,” as it shifts and changes over time.

The book tells several stories – of the twisty trail of loss; of family, identity and home ground; of learning to bear both the joy and the suffering of life; and of the deeply spiritual underpinnings of being human in this awkard and glorious world. It will be available through local bookstores, and through Amazon.com.

Here are a few excerpts from the book:

 

“In charting each step of these after-years, maybe I’ve laid down a map – small footsteps of a lurching heart after the firestorm of loss. Some have been sweet, some grueling. Some pressed so close to Mystery, I could barely breathe. Some, lost, even though I’ve tried to keep track.”

 

***

 

“Loss is hungry. It gobbles you up. It takes everything. How sad can a body be, I wonder, and not give up? How can we all walk around as if everything is whole, when so much is missing? I am demolished. There is no escape. Not reading. Not doing three loads of laundry in the small time between class and appointments. Not chocolate. Or the frenzied swim in cold water as the tide slips out. Not watching the sun shift through the sky.

How can I let the truth be its grizzly, velvety self, and not just fall down on my knees every single day without you? This breaking apart seems endless. Like you said near the end, this is just too much.

If you were here now, I would sing to you. I would tell you the dahlias are beautiful this year –slow to start, but glorious. And the cicadas are back. And I guess my life is okay.

But I want what we were. I want you back.”

 

***

 

“This is what I would talk with you about, if you were here: how to sink into the juicy, jeweled brilliance; the fierce, wrenching fire of loving the world even though everything will be swept away.”

***

 

If you find the book interesting, please consider posting a review on Amazon.com or other book sites. Also, please recommend it to others you think might find it helpful in the journey through grief. In these days of trying to navigate life on a struggling planet, the book might appeal to anyone who has experienced great loss, or to anyone committed to living deeply in this often frenzied world.

Many thanks for participating in this awkward trek through loss with me, and may your own journey be gentle.
Corinne