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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

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.

On The Visceral Faithfulness of Being Alive

 

This morning I looked through all the pictures of Aunt Min that I gathered for the book. I can’t tell you how they touched me. Seeing her so young – all her lively playfulness, the tender joys, the hope, the visceral faithfulness of being alive, of trusting the world. And now, she’s just not…..anything. Erased. Rosy memories and gritty dust. So shocking to my own visceral faithfulness of living. Stunning, and too real. The following is a small entry from Year 2 of the letters, written during a trip down to Louisiana.

 

10/14/12
I walk down to the batture beach, where the river is churning and brown. A fish flips up and out of the water, plunges back in, over and over—silver in the hot sun.

And trash, all along this little strip of sand; dumped from busy tug boats or scooped up by some stormy wind and tossed ashore. The water worries me. Is the fish who flips out of the water jumping away from chemicals that burn its tender flesh? Is it hungry for air? The sand isn’t much better: bits of plastic, broken soda bottles, a hospital mask, old tubes of industrial lubricant.

I gather up whatever I’m not afraid to touch, stack it into piles to pick up later and haul away. While I work, killdeer slip along the curve of damp sand.

Back at Nanette’s, everyone gets ready for tonight’s meal, talks about the football game and which team will win. Jara calls to say the toad lilies are in bloom—can we come for tea?

I wonder what led you to leave this closeness; this gentle, attentive life; the gorgeous food and fun and family ties—and even feuds; the long chats with anyone who dropped by?

Did your Maryland life in that little cave of a condo seem pretty sparse sometimes? Or were you happy to get away from what could, I guess, seem a bit much? Either way, you missed it enough to keep coming back for more

And will I keep coming back for more, decide to sink new roots into this familiar, fertile ground? I don’t know. For now, there are ribs smoking, muffins baking, cousins waiting with tea, sun heating things up, bags of trash picked up from the river beach to lug away, more stories to hear.

 

Afternoon
A little trip to the cemetery to find your coming-in and going-out dates finally inscribed: 1908 to 2010. You get credit for all your years. I sit for a while on the cement top of your tomb. I try to say something to you, but there are, oddly, no words. I don’t want to stay. But I don’t want to turn around and walk away, either.

I wish it were beautiful here. I wish this small, whitewashed cemetery wasn’t surrounded by the pumping, swishing, belching smokestacks of the chemical plant. I wish it was quiet. At least, then, I could walk away knowing you’re somewhere lovely. But there’s just the surreal starkness of death—yours, Helen’s, Johnny’s, Major’s, Grandma and Papa’s, the many relatives. There is just the unreality of you in that tiny box, surrounded by the lush emerald land fanning out all around.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring flowers. I’m pretty sure you don’t need anything from me, but the brightness of a few petals can’t hurt.

Some Wisdom on Life and Loss from Pema Chodron

 

Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, has written extensively about the challenges and graces of hard times –

 

“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
 

― Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

Letters, Year 2

 

The second year of grieving was, in some ways, harder than the first. After a year of stumbling through the unreality of loss, of staying busy with Min’s affairs, the love room still lingered. In fact, it became richer, luminous, a place more welcoming than my everyday life. But that rarefied comfort was equally matched by the heightened awareness that my aunt was really gone. The truth pressed down like a blade on tender flesh.

It had been a year. Friends and other family saw me go through the routines of functioning as I continued to teach, to stay in touch with daughters, to do the details of keeping up a home. But I still very much lived in the hidden country of grief. I still followed the trail of little letters, trying to find my way back to my aunt.

Comforts and joys that shored me up through this difficult second year included digging through my aunt’s boxes of old letters, and taking trips down South where I tracked down our Louisiana family and met many newfound cousins.

These all gave me the strength begin to bear the impossible reality of the end.

 

9/5/11
Oh, Little Honey,
I’m pretty sure you’re too far away, and too much in need of the holy rest, to drop down here to touch me. I do feel you, though, thin and wispy. Are you still between worlds, sinking and sinking into deeper levels of the mysterious Emptiness? Are you all glory yet? All light and airy shine? All melted into love? Or are there some small bits still unresolved, maybe something you are holding onto? Would one of those be me? If so, I want you to know that it’s okay to let go. I want you to be free. I want you to sink into whatever light loveliness is waiting for you, whatever dark beauty.

Like the mystics say, maybe you have been absorbed into the great heart of the Holy One. May you sink into rest. May you un-become in the womb of the Great Surprising Tenderness. May you be free.

And the love room? It’s still our share of the Great Surprising Tenderness, where sharp edges softened and our hearts braved discontent, our hands grabbed hold—sometimes clenched, sometimes gentle. But we never let go. We danced together, sipping the sweet wine of making the best of it all.

I don’t want this to end, this time of remembering you, of keeping an ear turned your way. Even doing all the crappy details of tying up what’s left of your life is better than nothing. I’m still afraid of the emptiness, the hole you’ve left. So this is what I have now: the stories—yours, left over, and mine, still giving birth. Our love room shrine, and the empty space you used to fill.

The world is a quiet, duller place without your crackling wit, your sparkling eyes, the joyful juiciness of your laugh.

 

9/7/11
I wish you had been able to go home, to be surrounded by your very familiar things. I wish I’d had a chance to love you more, or better. But you were tired.

What else is there to say? I’m so glad to have had you in my life.

I’ll probably keep slipping through the love room, just in case you might pop in at the most unlikely times. Maybe I’ll start to sort out your letters; probably, I’ll find more of you there.
I’m sure I’ll visit you from time to time, just be swept up by the simplest, familiar thing and meet you there. Your breath still hangs in the breath of the world. We are breathing together, even now.

 

9/11/11
One catch-up chore after another, I am laying you down. I’m not in a hurry, just doing the work. Trying to pick up all the pieces of my own life, set aside to keep up with yours. There are piles of papers to sort and file, school work to update, things to throw out or keep, photos to put in albums, plans to make for my own future. After twelve years of working for you, I am older and, having seen your end, I can see my own.

But I’m not there yet. I’m realiziing that I’ve been carrying your aging and death as if they were mine, as if I were the one faltering and then gone, but that’s not true.

And something new: I’m finding little bits of niggling anger with you for co-opting my life. You knew I wouldn’t leave. You held on tight. Now I have to go back and see what I’ve given up, and what I can reclaim. There are some things, probably, that are lost forever: possibilities, a certain liveliness I might have had at fifty that has passed me by. I wonder how things might have been if I weren’t so used up. Still, the anger is all tangled with the bright, warm joy of loving you, and the grace of growing deeper into your heart, and mine. Of coming together to build the love room that sheltered what had been delicate and rare, and grew strong and sure and irreplaceable in the close-to-the-bone times. There is that, too.

Now, bit by bit, chore by chore, I am coming back to this body-home, without you. Maybe I’ll find new parts of me, but I am sure even these will be flavored with you. Oh, I have loved you so much. What a grace this has been, the awkward trek through being, and not being, with you.

 

9/20/11
I don’t want to finish, don’t want to wrap up the sweet, tortuous work, the loose-limbed grief, the gasping emptiness. They are what I have of you; these, and the breathy conversations we still have in the love room that is coming apart.

How could it be that something so real—so bright and rich and full, so hard and fun and surprising as the togetherness we made—just stops? How could there be an end?

That spark and spirit and curiosity, and all the learning and changing and wanting to hold on, even all the niggling anger and resentment and the litany of complaints—how could they not hang in the air, rush just beneath the surface of my skin, be part of my bone and blood and thoughts, something I see everywhere I turn?

How could the love room not be waiting for me, that small, quiet corner where I can still look at my hand and see yours, reach out and feel the breathy air that might be you taking hold of me? How could it be gone? How could you?

I’m still not ready for the end.

 

9/24/11
How has the love room come to consume so much of my life? Why is it realer than everything else—better, even, than time with friends, or anything exciting that takes energy? Has it somehow gobbled me up, held me captive? Is it easier for me to live in the sweet cubicle of our togetherness than to re-enter the noisy, busy, throbbing of life? Can I leave the love room behind? Can it let me go? Can you?

Somehow, my life has become this: the bubble of our lives together, and the intangible, airy truth of missing you.

I sit in the rocker, making notes, end up straightening your shawl. I could give it to one of your friends; they did love you so much. Or maybe I should save it for someone in the family. Of course, after a certain point, family is just another name for all the people we love.

 

9/26/11
I think it would have meant something to say goodbye before you left. Maybe my words would have been less stilted, my heart less timid than usual. Maybe I’d have gathered up courage and looked you straight in your tissue-lidded eyes—your fading eyes—and said, “Goodbye. I love you. I won’t forget. You’ll live on in me. It was so, so good to know you.”

I suspect, if I had been there, that the terrible, thrilling mysteriousness of life-death-love would have flooded right through us—caught up all the tangles of our still-guarded hearts and swept them away: all the holdings, the awkward habits, any rough-edged memories. We would have been freed.

Maybe all this happened anyway, even though I wasn’t there and you left with no one holding your hand. Maybe all the catching up and sweeping away, the emptying out, is happening even now. We’re there until we’re done—and are we ever done? I don’t know that yet.

I do know something feels different lately, but even knowing that makes me afraid: afraid of losing you, of losing who I was with you. I am still kneeling on the cool floor of the love room, still swaying with whatever wind blows if it has even a whiff of your sweetness on its breath.

 

9/27/11
Maybe the love room isn’t just for people. Maybe everything that lives—leans against another for long enough—makes an organic mesh of life, something just their own, that only the two can share. An enduring love room of habit and memory and continuing on.

On Letting Go

 

Letting go has never been my best thing. One comment I heard long ago, from someone who was wrestling with addictive behavior, was that “Everything I ever let go of had scratch marks all over it.” I could definitely identify with that. The same held true for me in letting go of my aunt. Even though I felt so exhausted with the slow and arduous work of grief, I couldn’t give her up.

The following is a brief note I wrote to her in the first year after her death –

4/27/11
I wish I had been there when you were slipping away. I could have sat with you. I would have held a thin bubble of quiet all around us so the bustling busyness would have been shut out. I wouldn’t have interfered when you were trying to leave. I would have just held your delicate fingers, let you grip hard if you needed to. Just waited, in the wonder of seeing you off, loving you so much.

Would I have felt you tug away? Lift up, out of your body that had been strong for so long? If I had watched your face, would I have seen the change? The wonder take over? Would I have noticed any fear slip away, replaced by the sheer, exquisite beauty, the stunning holiness, the truest coming-to-ground, even as you left the ground behind?

Oh, I would have given anything to be there with you. But maybe it’s selfish, this longing. Maybe you needed to be alone, to slip into the whispery world, beyond everything you knew, by yourself. And maybe you trusted me. Maybe you already knew that I could do this by myself—live here, in this, the tender tangle of things, loving the world, the work, the hidden diamond at the heart of all that’s hard. Maybe what I needed most is this: you, trusting me enough to leave, to let go. So I can do that, too. In loving you, I can let you go.

On Nature, and Healing After Loss

 

In some of my earliest memories, I am riding in the car with my dad while we sail past flat Louisiana canefields on the way to my grandmother’s house. I so often wished then the car would stop and I could get out. I imagined racing across the brilliant green fields, following the trail of a dark bayou, watching the mysterious lives of all the wild things as they trundled through swampy brush. I imagined that I, too, was wild. That in my deepest heart, I belonged to the woods, to the waterways, the animals, the wide skies, the mysterious hidden places.

Nature has always been a place where I could find peace. Where, if I sat still long enough, the busy tangle of everyday thoughts and worries and pressures would begin to slip apart, and I could come to something truer, deeper, more kin to my real self. As I watched a fish slip through brown water, or waited while a dragonfly nymph opened her first wings, I felt welcomed, comfortable, “home.”

It is no surprise to me that, when the love room experience was unfolding, it was nestled within the context of the natural world. In the midst of intense grief, I needed to walk. Whether there was rain, or snow, or ice; even if it was hot, or muggy, or brutally cold, I had to be outdoors. I can’t say how many times I hunkered down on a patch of icy snow at a nearby pond while sleety rain ticked on my jacket sleeves.

In the midst of the life-rupture of loss, wild places were a kind of haven where sorrow could seep out of my very skin. Nothing I could feel was too much, too dangerous, too absurd. I could sit on the side of the pond and come apart while a heron hunkered in the rain next to me, lifting one gigantic, sooty wing, poking her sharp beak through feathers as she groomed. Life was happening. The heron trusted her life. I could, somehow, trust my own.

I wonder if Nature has played a part in healing from great loss for any of you –

My Last Year of Being Fabulous

 

I didn’t know what it would cost me to carry you. How much of my own life I’d have to ignore so I could take care of yours. So I could make it all work. I’d have to be fabulous. But I had learned that early, and well. Now that you’re gone, though, I’m tired. It might be time to rethink the habit of being so good.

I can’t say when it first started, the push to be fabulous. Maybe part of it is gender – a baby girl born in the Deep South toddles toward duty before she knows her own name. Or maybe it just slipped in, a little at a time. There are so many good reasons to respond to the world, to the yawning need, to the gap between the things that work, and the ache of all that doesn’t.

What’s the line between competent and fabulous, anyway? I can do so many things. I’m not brilliant, but I can look at a problem, and see what needs to happen – the possibilities – where all the loose edges could match up.

And there’s something I like about being great. It’s such a thrill – the glory of being the one who can do it, and who will. The problem is, it’s an edgy thing – a two sided sword that cuts both ways. There’s the first warm glow, the thrill of accomplishment, the excitement.

But the buzz can’t be sustained. Excitement, they say in Tibetan medicine, is an unfavorable climate – so close to violence, so far away from the center where the balance lies.

I knew a man once, a contractor, who said he liked working on tall ladders because it kept him honest. He had to be real with himself about what his limits were, what the point of balance was – how far he could stretch and still be safe. What the thin line was between his body, anchored in itself, and the spare, empty air beyond what he could really do.

Maybe fabulous is, at a certain point, the thin, empty air beyond balance – sometimes where you need to go, but really a place where you can’t stay for very long.

This morning, I walked out across city traffic and into an urban version of woods. I was desperate for some place where duty couldn’t grab me by the neck. Still, even in that quiet place, my mental list of chores chattered away.

Turning a corner then, I heard rustling in the brush, spotted the white fluffy tails of deer. They were so absolutely still, so perfectly blended into the mesh of tiny trees I didn’t see them at first. I stopped. Stared and stared, then looked away. I let my eyes forget. I wanted the deer to stay hidden. To have some place where they could just belong to themselves.

Maybe the remedy for being fabulous is belonging to myself. Like the deer who just fill up their quiet lives, who move lightly in the soft warm everydayness of themselves, I could belong to the wild, unclaimed territory of being just what I am.

It’s so easy to forget that just living is enough.

What is it that really heals the world, anyway? This morning, in the midst of feeling pressed down, used up, impossibly necessary, the deer doing just what is in them to do, remind me.

What will my next year be? My year of belonging to myself? My year of not responding? Maybe I will learn, one refusal at a time, one gentle turning away after another, how to nest in the untidy mess of a life, my irregular rounded pearl of a life. And that will be enough. More than enough. Everything.