Category Archives: Reflections

On Coming Home

 

After my aunt died, I went home. Met newfound cousins, and renewed ties with those I had met before. I was surprised, even shocked, by how much I longed for and loved my old “home ground,” the people and the place. I decided that places can hold onto you – wrap gnarly tangles around your ankles so your feet won’t forget where they belong. The following is a little journal entry from a recent visit.

 

3/31/16
This place isn’t something you visit; it’s something you take in, ingest, absorb, so it becomes a part of you. You can never really leave.

This morning Bodi and I walk in cool air, through heavy fog, over very wet batture ground. In the grass, little colonies of blue-flowered lyre leaf sage still thrive, some seeding and some just starting to bloom. A red shouldered hawk calls, sails into trees. A biker speeds by on the levee as we move down to the water.

At the river, the sand bar seems higher despite the recent rain. The sand is packed down into ripples, the willows all flowering and thick. I pick some leafy twigs to take home and tincture, then sit on a log for a while to watch.

Lately, I am falling in love with the river. I don’t know what it is that captures me, sweeps me up like just another sodden bit of wood and carries me along – gets into my skin and dreams – becomes a compass point I have to turn to – am not really happy, or home, unless I can come on any morning to see its changes, settle onto a driftwood log and watch to see what the river churns up – check the sand bar for tracks of what’s been here since I was gone: beaver, mouse, egret, boar, maybe someday soon, when the heat notches up, an alligator. But I need all this, lately, like air or rest or prayer or food.

It takes me deep.

On Easing Into The End

 

In the third year after my aunt’s death, grief began to change. Somehow my heart that had been ravaged and torn seemed to be growing a new depth, a new acceptance that could include both the wretchedness of loss, and a new way forward. The following is a little entry written from a friend’s camp in mid-coast Maine.

 

8/7/13
This morning Bodi and I walked through raggedy unmown fields that were heavy with dew, honeybees rising up from wildflowers in the early sun. At Eleanor’s, there were boisterous dog greetings, and time for tea and chatting.

We talked about aging and what to do about the future, how to get our needs met, and about loneliness – the scary fact of bad things happening when there’s no one to help. And all the responsibility, and who might share it as we age. And about grief, how to let everything go and still love the life you have. Eleanor said her sister is grieving after suffering a loss, is overwhelmed.

I remember the overwhelming part after you’d left. I think I am coming out of it now, though there is a limit to how much I can do without needing recovery time. Still, something of that lowness has loosened up, is coming to a kind of close.

This writing, too, might be rounding out. Here I am, at Eleanor’s, where I came in those hardest times to take breaks from the work that was endless and all the phone calls that were scary. After you’d gone, I came here to recover, slog through the grayest of months. To wait for little touches of the love room, the sweetness and surprises of you showing up.

Here, the quiet pond lapping over itself, owls booming in the night, the veeries and osprey, eagles and loons, the ocean at Owl’s Head, wide green fields, the wild silence – all teased something apart in me, helped soothe and soften the impossible truth of the end. Your end. Here, something was still good, alive. Lush, and trembling.

Now I paddle out over warm amber water, dip a hand into the pond, and somehow, maybe, the joy that wells up in my own life spills over into the well of all lives loved, especially yours. My life is still breathing into the love room, keeping you afloat.

On Small Miracles

 

I’ve always imagined that at the moment of death, something miraculous must happen – something that can, if time and circumstances allow, pierce through the ordinariness of our day-to-day lives and take us into an experience of what mystics through time have called “the numinous” – a direct experience of divine mystery. That the holiness, the quintessential meaning that underlies the whole world, would be exposed and present in an undeniable and palpable way.

I wasn’t with Aunt Min when she died – I was far away. But when my dad passed away, I was close by. Though I wasn’t with him in those final moments, I was able to see something that, to this day, I consider a great gift.

Stricken with lung and liver cancer, my dad was able to be at home for most of his illness. But in his last few days, things went awry, and he was hospitalized, put on oxygen, and was in and out of awareness. On what would turn out to be his last day, I visited him at the hospital. Aunt Min was there at the same time, and we sat and talked quietly while he napped. Suddenly, out of a deep sleep, my dad sat straight up, and stared into the space beyond his bed. He said nothing, but his face expressed shock, amazement, and then great relief and freedom. It’s hard to describe what happened in that room, but the air was charged with a kind of miraculous presence, and my dad was changed. Instead of struggling, he slumped back down in the bed and fell into a deep rest. What I “got” at that moment was that my dad had seen that he was “innocent.” Whatever he had been carrying (as we all do, in so many ways) – a sense of his failures, his “sins,” his fundamental wrongness, had been released, and he had seen the truth.

I guess one could surmise that perhaps subconsciously I had held my dad as “guilty” of being less than a perfect father, or held some grudge against him, and in that moment I let that go. But I have to say that something much larger than forgiveness of any little resentment happened in that moment.

Soon after that experience, I left for home. A few hours later, my sister called to tell me that my dad was gone. He had finally let go. I was wrecked, of course. But I have never forgotten the wrenching grace of those moments right before he died. Sometimes those most challenging times of great pain and wrenching change break the everyday world open and we can see, and feel, that which holds us all up. Such forgiveness. Such great love.

 

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Life is Calling Me Back

 

After almost two years of waiting at the love room door, I was tugged back into life. Part of my attention was still turned toward my aunt, but another part began to lean forward. The following is a little note from those early days of transition from grief into hope.

 

5/5/12

The thick cloud bank of loss that I’ve been breathing in, drinking up, chewing, and digesting for these many months of you being gone has been world, sustenance, breath.

And now is shifting. Life is calling me back. I want to do some gentle things – pay attention to the garden, poke fingers into dark damp soil, plant a few seeds. Check to see what might be coming up; be excited at what I find. I want to get to know more people, think about the future, clean up and throw things out, and – who knows – maybe find someone to love.

But what will happen to our love room if I slip back into life? Will it hang, suspended, in the ethers of which it was made, gauzy walls flapping in the winds of emptiness? Will it be a little shrine of your life and mine, intertwined, marking the spot where love stretched across the netherworld of the mysteries of being and not?

Or will the shimmery space of our connection do what every real and natural thing must – lay itself down, come apart, offer itself into the air like the apple blossoms that let go of the branch, drift down in a shower of petals with the promise of another life yet to come, another season of fruiting and feast?

I am guessing that’s the truth, for nothing real holds on forever. Everything must give itself over to what can still become.

On Humor and Grief

 

Life is just too weird for words. Life – and death – astound us. This crazy, motley journey of living – and of dying – can seem pretty ridiculous at times.

And then, when grief seems impossible to navigate, humor has a way of piercing through the ridiculousness and taking us back into what’s possible. We can make it through. Nothing can totally crush us. We’re part of the unfolding mystery of the world. We’re stronger than we think. And we’re really not alone.

One of my fondest memories of the time after my mom died was of being at the funeral home before the viewing hours with my sister, Celeste, and my daughters, Alison and Lara. We were all gathered around my mom’s coffin, and the funeral home manager was giving us time to be alone before he brought the visitors in. Standing around my mom’s body, we began talking about how “snarky” she could be – sharing some of the things that drove us all crazy and were so funny. I can’t remember what set us off, but we started giggling together. At that point, the funeral attendant opened the doors to let people in, but when he saw us, he thought we were sobbing. He backed out, slammed the door, and left us alone. We cracked up even more. We kept trying to stop laughing, but every time he opened the door again and then raced out, we’d start chortling. We were wiping our eyes; my sister was pinching her cheeks to make herself stop laughing. When we could finally get some control, we all agreed that my mom would have loved this, and been right in there laughing with us.

Much research in the last few years has focused on the importance of humor in a grieving process. A blog, The Utility of Laughter in Times of Grief, lists some of the impacts humor can have. Physical effects can include easing physical pain, strengthening the immune system, decreasing stress, elevating mood, and decreasing depression and anxiety. Emotional effects include putting things in perspective, enhancing problem solving, triggering creativity, allowing one to take her/himself less seriously, and gaining a sense of control over circumstances. Social impacts include increased bonding among family and friends, diffusing conflicts, and boosting morale.

An article by Mark Liebenow in the Huffington Post of May 2016 reminds us that humor can be sacred as well. “Laughter is a door that creates a crack in our rational mind and allows insights to enter in.”

Of course, sometimes humor is just another form of denial. “Gallows humor,” an avoidance or trivialization of the seriousness of the situation, is an attempt to sidestep the wretchedness of grief. But when humor bubbles up spontaneously, and especially when it’s shared, a gentle and healing light is shed on the impossible reality of loss. The gifts of love linger, no matter what. Leibenow notes that every culture has its clowns or fools who remind people that “there is more going on in life than what they can see.” Laughter and humor can be gentle doors back into the life we once loved, even when our beloveds are gone.

On Suffering

 

When I was about 10 years old, I thought a lot about pain – why it is that a God who was supposed to care about us, and to be in charge of everything, would allow life to be so hard. I asked my mom about that one day. She answered that God wanted us to suffer so we could know how good life really was. I remember walking out of the house, and something rising up in me – a voice, a kind of deeper “knowing” that said, No! That’s not the truth. God doesn’t want us to suffer.

Now, of course, after decades of arguing with the reality of life, I’ve come to understand that my mom was talking about the awkward gifts that pain can bring: suffering pushes us into deeper questions, deeper realities of the paradoxes of life, things that we can only apprehend with the heart, not the mind.

In reading theological approaches to suffering, I have come to believe that not only does the Divine care when we suffer, but that Spirit suffers with us, and with the struggles and pains of the whole world. And sometimes it is in great suffering that we become most loving, most understanding. Out of the hell of suffering, we grow fierce and tender hearts that can bear both the joys and the wretchedness of life.

In an essay entititled “Life as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Death,” Rabbi and religious scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel commented on what happens to our comprehension of life following loss.

“Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief. Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe.”

That awe after my aunt died was not just an intellectual or even emotional experience, but a trembling of my whole being that deepened my ability to live with, and even embrace, the complexities and mysteries of this complicated and multifaceted journey with courage and great love. Every day now, I am brought to my knees by love.

Still Keeping You Afloat

 

As loss began to loosen its tenacious grip, a visit to a friend’s camp on the Maine mid-coast allowed time for reflecting back on the journey of grief. Here is a little letter from Year 3 of the letters.

 

8/7/13
This morning Bodi and I walked through raggedy unmown fields that were heavy with dew, honeybees rising up from wildflowers in the early sun. At Eleanor’s, there were boisterous dog greetings, and time for tea and chatting.

We talked about aging and what to do about the future, how to get our needs met, and about loneliness – the scary fact of bad things happening when there’s no one to help. And all the responsibility, and who might share it as we age. And about grief, how to let everything go and still love the life you have. Eleanor said her sister is grieving after suffering a loss, is overwhelmed.

I remember the overwhelming part after you’d left. I think I am coming out of it now, though there is a limit to how much I can do without needing recovery time. Still, something of that lowness has loosened up, is coming to a kind of close.

This writing, too, might be rounding out. Here I am, at Eleanor’s, where I came in those hardest times to take breaks from the work that was endless and all the phone calls that were scary. After you’d gone, I came here to recover, slog through the grayest of months. To wait for little touches of the love room, the sweetness and surprises of you showing up.

Here, the quiet pond lapping over itself, owls booming in the night, the veeries and osprey, eagles and loons, the ocean at Owl’s Head, wide green fields, the wild silence – all teased something apart in me, helped soothe and soften the impossible truth of the end. Your end. Here, something was still good, alive. Lush, and trembling.

Now I paddle out over warm amber water, dip a hand into the pond, and somehow, maybe, the joy that wells up in my own life spills over into the well of all lives loved, especially yours. My life is still breathing into the love room, keeping you afloat.

On Denial

 

I guess one could say that the whole love room experience was a kind of luminous denial.
My mind could understand the unavoidable trajectory of a limited, physical life, and its end. But my emotions, and my body, didn’t believe it at all.

I had an anatomy teacher once who told us that we were all made of stardust – that we have taken in the universe – and become it. I think the love room is like that too – what we’ve participated in, what we’ve loved, becomes part of our flesh, blood, mind, heart, maybe even spirit.

So how in the world are we supposed to believe that someone who’s gone is really – gone? And what are memories, anyway? Aren’t they just the left over stuff of what we’ve lived in, and through and with? And what’s the thin line between denial and hope?
The following are a couple of little letters from Year 3 –

5/10/13
At the pond, geese still nest despite rising waters.This morning, the mother lifts up, fluffs feathers, resettles. The male hunches nearby, will help her out once the chicks arrive. She’ll be hungry, though, by the time the eggs are done, and busy, shepherding babies all over their new world. And then a long flight home.

Everything pulls away, finishes, flies off. But here I am, not quite leaving so many things, including you.

I am still the student of the mysterious fact of love, of living and not living, of what to do with care when the one I cared for so fiercely is gone. How does one ever learn this impossible thing?

5/11/13
Walking this morning in a hard rain, and getting soaked. In the woods, I lean against a little tree for a moment, sniff its wet bark. It has no leaves, no branches, only one thin, tall trunk, stretching up.

This tree still has a love room with the sky. The habit of love, of reaching out, lingers long, I guess.

On Taking Shelter

 

Sometimes, we need shelter from the storm. The winds of loss buffet us, leave us weak and tattered. Our emotions after loss become a storm we can barely withstand.

After my aunt died, I took shelter in Nature, and in writing. I took shelter with my dog. Or with close friends who knew I was fragile. I saw mindless movies. Read endless crime mysteries that I instantly forgot. I took shelter in sun and warmth; in solitude, and in time with my grandson. I sought shelter in counseling with a practitioner who had known the “before” me, and the “after” me, and walked with me through the journey of transition. I sought out shelter in some “soft-core” addictions – to sugar, to tv, to gardening. I sought shelter in prayers, and in silence, and in staring into space. Nothing felt better than sitting alone and watching dust motes drift in the air. I could make it through my days if I took time out to just “be.”

I think that this was an important part of making it through loss. What I had depended upon, what I had known as reality, was being deconstructed, and my body and mind needed time to catch up. I needed to come apart. I needed time to grow a new capacity to withstand the reality of grief.

The following are a couple of letters on the graces shelter brought to my life after my aunt’s death –

 

1/1/12
On this quiet New Year’s Day, I sit at the cold pond, gaze at the snow, the sky, all the sparkles of hidden frost shining in the new sun.

And think about you. No matter what else I am doing, I am missing you, holding onto you, standing at the door of the love room, waiting for you. Maybe this is just how grieving is. Maybe all of us left behind—out of habit and confusion and not knowing what else to do—keep moving forward as if something else mattered, as if everything else were real. Which, of course, is true. But the still very palpable nearness of you, and the sweet, small enclosure of the love room we share, and the impossible wrenching away of what was so bright and real, still throb at the bottom of my heart.

I am wondering why.

Perhaps I have stumbled upon some shy but piercing truth about death and life: the heart is never done. What we think is real—this journey with its beginnings and endings, its sharp turns and boundaries and walls—is just another breathing in and breathing out, not so far away from that place where you are now. Not so far away from me.

 

4/10/12
I don’t know why it is taking me so long to believe this fact, to live with the emptiness you’ve left. Maybe death, the final loss, is just so wrenchingly, terribly impossible, it takes a while to settle in, to seep down through the layers of everydayness, of all the ways we cope and move on, to finally rest on the bottom—oh, if there is a bottom!—of the truth.

You must be moving on. I might be, too. Today I felt a little thrill of edging toward relief. The coming of the first summer in almost a decade without too much to do; without taking care of you, or something of yours.

I can feel it coming. I can’t wait.

Will that offset the hole you left behind? Probably not. But I might have time, and space, to recover. To rest. To sit with the love room and see what’s left of us. To swim for a while in the so many ways I love this life even though you’re not in it anymore.

On Love Spilling Over

 

You know how you love some people so much that they’re like part of you? Like part of your skin or bones? How sometimes you feel almost stricken with love, overwhelmed and overcome for a moment?

It struck me one day that, if we let in all the love we feel to its greatest depth, we’d probably just explode, melt, die. Our hearts would just sizzle and burn with the heat of so much care. I thought that maybe this is what Divine love feels like – wonderful, but we can only take it up in tiny sips.

We learn very early that some feelings are too much, too intense. We grow cautious, careful; we learn to keep quiet, to disguise or measure out our love. We get hurt. We don’t want to be too vulnerable. We grow afraid of what it would mean, to really give ourselves completely over to love. For better and for worse, that’s a normal part of growing up, of being human. We are always trying to find the awkward balance between caring intensely and guarding our own hearts.

It occurred to me that maybe this is part of what the love room is about….we feel so MUCH love for someone we can never adequately express. But all that love gets filtered through the busyness of everyday life, old hurts and fears, or just differences in styles of expression. Then, after someone is gone, the love room becomes the place, and the time, where that immense, intense love can safely spill out. All that we were unable to share with someone when they were alive floods through us. Maybe that’s why the love room, after someone is gone, feels so rarefied and precious. It’s the tenderest love we felt all along, but could only squeeze out in measured, imperfect drops.

Since my aunt died, and with my own aging, I’ve begun to realize that love matters more than anything else. I want the rest of my life to be about love. I want my heart to be less brittle and guarded; to be strengthened and softened and opened and healed. I pray for that everyday. What else, after all, can we really do in and for this world?