Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eve

I’m not celebrating. I just wrote my friend to tell her I wouldn’t be coming to her party tonight.
Today is the last day of the last year my husband was alive. How can I be glad that it’s ending, this fragile link to his life? How can I celebrate the end of this most horrible, most precious year?
I wrote yesterday about the ‘strange logic of grief.’ This is another example. Ordinarily I think of New Year’s as just an arbitrary day of the calendar; we have to pick one day to start a year with, after all. But this year the meaning is all twisted up with my sadness and loss: as long as it is 2015 Arthur was alive this year. Tomorrow it will be last year.
My last photo of Arthur, taken February 2015

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Unopened Letter

From the NY Times article
Last weekend the New York Times published a beautiful essay called “The Unopened Letter.” One day a friend gave the author a letter. A letter from his mother who had been dead for seven years. The letter had been misplaced when the author was training to be a pilot; the story is irrelevant here (but interesting!).

The question became: should he open the letter? Of course it would be wonderful to have the experience of hearing his dear mother’s voice coming through a letter one more time. But then that experience would be over and done for the rest of his life.

The author says he has had the letter now two years and still hasn’t opened it.
For now it’s enough to look at the blue stick-figure airplane my mom drew on the envelope. To emphasize the word “airmail,” of course, but surely the angle of the climbing jet’s nose is jauntier than necessary, except perhaps for an aspiring pilot. For now it’s enough to look at her handwriting, at my name in her hand, and to remember that until I open it, I know I’ll hear from her once more.
Some of his friends say they’d have torn the envelope open immediately. Others say they understand why he’s left it unopened.
I understand. I am so blessed: I have 52 hours of Arthur and I talking with each other. These are episodes of our A Question Of Meaning TV show, which we recorded over the course of a year, five years ago. Watching them is a bittersweet joy. So far this year I’ve watched 21 episodes and uploaded them to YouTube, but I’m already feeling the reluctance to finish. Once I’ve watched them all, there will be no new video of Arthur to watch. 
I described this to a friend as the ‘strange logic of grief.’ Things that seem right to me now would have made no sense to me before.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Fertile Emptiness

In the last year my mantra has been ‘everything that has a beginning has an end.’ Sometimes I would turn it around and say, ‘in order to have beginnings, you must have endings.’
This gave me some peace, because it placed Arthur’s death in the nature of things, but I still felt myself floundering. I was focused on endings. All I could see was that everything in my life had ended. I felt a deep and profound emptiness.
Then I met a new friend a month ago, a very loving and compassionate woman named Kitty. When she heard me talk about what I am going through with Arthur’s death she recommended a book that had helped her in the past, called Transitions, by William Bridges. Kitty sent me a one-page synopsis she had made for herself. What really grabbed my attention was Mr. Bridges’ suggestion that transitions include a ‘period of fertile emptiness’ between an ending and a beginning.

Reading that phrase brought a flood of relief. I could see that I had been scared by my feelings of emptiness. I thought I felt that way because there was something wrong with me: I didn’t have enough close friends, or a ‘real’ job to distract me, or family living close. Reading that phrase allowed me to accept the emptiness: this is a fundamental aspect of the transition I am going through.
Many years ago Mr. Bridges was going through a transition in his own life; he had quit a job without a clear idea of what to do next. At this time he held his first ‘transition seminar.’ He discovered that endings and transitions take all kinds of forms. There was a woman in that first seminar who had just had a baby. She seemed out of place amongst all the people suffering from endings like divorce and job loss until they realized that this was her first baby and she was mourning the loss of the childfree relationship with her husband.
Mr. Bridges talks a lot about how traditional societies had rituals to help people cope with the transitions in life. Since our culture has lost these tools, we have to find our own way. But by recognizing the basic elements of those ancient rituals we can get an idea how to bring their essence into our lives.
Think for example of a standard ‘coming of age’ ritual. The young people are removed from their families—their childhood has ended. They spend time apart from the group, often alone in the wilderness. Then they return to the tribe, often with a new name—a new chapter of their life has begun. The section in the middle of the ritual—the time apart—is the crucial element in the story. This is when the young person has the visions that define the rest of their lives.
I can see how I had the assumption that beginnings grow immediately out of endings. Mr. Bridges suggests that this is one of the reasons so many in our culture have trouble with endings; we don’t know how to allow ourselves the space for emptiness. We’ve lost the concept, the wisdom, of fallow time. The ancient rituals allowed for a time out-of-time, an empty space, a fertile emptiness.
Mr. Bridges gives some suggestions to help you in the empty time. Among these are: find time to be alone; keep a journal of your feelings, dreams, thoughts, and/or unusual happenings; write an autobiography, which is a way to get a fresh perspective now that this ending has occurred; and do a private retreat.
This last week I have spent in solitude. I felt the dark days around the solstice calling me to be quiet. In this time of aloneness I sketched out an autobiography and I can feel its power, helping me understand who I am and where I’ve been, readying me to move into a new beginning.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stephen Colbert on Grief

I am a fan of Stephen Colbert. I haven’t seen him on the Tonight Show yet, and I only caught the Colbert Report rarely. When I did see his show I felt his heart was enormous and his joy infectious.
My favorite part of the show were his interviews. I thought he had a sensitivity lacking in many other talk show hosts, and in addition, Colbert asked interesting and unusual questions.
Not long ago I read an interview with him, published in GQ, and felt like I got a sense of why his heart is so open. Colbert is the youngest of eleven children. His father and two of his brothers, the two that were closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. All of his other siblings were in college or living elsewhere, so Colbert lived alone with his mother for many years.
One day, when he was 35, Colbert had a revelation while walking down the street: “The world it’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, though I know a lot of dead people.”
I loved hearing him say that about the loveliness of the world; what I call the ‘bounteous beauty’ has helped carry me through this year of grief.
The article says he used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”
Here is the section of the article about his experience with grief [This is towards the end of the long interview.]:
“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.
I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I'm grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.
“It's not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can't change everything about the world. You certainly can't change things that have already happened.”

I hope that one day I can get to the experience of love for that thing I most wish had not happened, and I am grateful to Stephen Colbert for his example.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Love and Beauty

Before Arthur died I tended towards agnosticism, if not outright atheism. I have always had a skeptical mind. Arthur was deeply spiritual and this was a thorn between us.
One of the components of grief is a searching for meaning: Why does life exist if it’s just going to end in death? What is the meaning of being alive? How can someone be so vital one moment and in the next moment the light goes out of their eye and they are gone even though their body remains? Why does this universe exist? What’s the point?
These questions swirled in my mind in the first grueling months of grief.
In those months there were also moments where I had undeniable feelings of connection to something deep and true underlying the material world. These moments gave me a lifeline, a spark of hope in the gloom.
Eventually I had enough of these experiences that I realized I could no longer be an agnostic. There is something deeper, something more than the physical. I know because I have felt it.
I refer to my new faith as STM: Some Thing More.
The two pillars of this faith (at least so far) are the existence of love and beauty.
Beauty spoke to me in the deepest hours of my grief, lifting my heart and giving me the strength to carry on. On hikes last spring I was regularly struck with the bounteous beauty in all things (Bounteous Beauty blog post).

Nature kept whispering to me: Beauty is the underlying essence of the All.
Love. In my grief I felt the love in my heart expanding. How does love endure past death? How could I love Arthur more now than when he was alive? Why is love one of the greatest needs of the human heart, the need to love, and the need to be loved?
Love is a force at the heart of human life.
And not just human. Recently I saw videos of two very unlikely animals enjoying having their stomachs rubbed: a bat and a penguin. Not long ago I went on a tour of a local nature center with a woman who works there, and when she called to the wolves in their open enclosure they came running, wagging their tails like dogs, and hung out near the fence with our group. 

How many videos are there on FaceBook that show animals from different species caring for one another? 

Perhaps when humans remove the need for survival from animals’ lives, by providing all the food and shelter they need, we create the environment in which the lion can lie down with the lamb.
Why? Because Love is the underlying essence of the All.
Love and Beauty. Some Thing More.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Life Prevails

These lichens, one growing on a tree stump and the orange on some fallen limbs, were shining today in the damp forest.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Getting Grief Right

For years I heard about the ‘five stages of grief’: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But when I actually got to the point of experiencing grief these sounded wrong. When someone has already died how does bargaining enter the picture?
With a little research I learned that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross delineated these famous stages for people who were dying, not for those who were grieving.
Thankfully for me not long after Arthur died I found an article called “Getting Grief Right.” The author is a psychotherapist who has had experience with grief in his own life; his son died. Dr. Patrick O’Malley has realized that the “stages of grief” belief has become a destructive prescription for moving on and it often doesn’t allow people to grieve in the way that is right for them.
Dr. O’Malley wrote about a woman who had come to see him. Her infant daughter had died six months before. She was convinced that she should have been able to work those five stages like they were steps in a self-help program. She was confused why she was still sad. She thought there must be something wrong with her.
I cried aloud with relief when I read the words he spoke to her: “The depth of your sadness is simply a measure of the love you had for your daughter.”
Dr. O’Malley wrote that
When I was trained, in the late 1970s, the stages of grief were the standard by which a grieving person’s progress was assessed. That model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.
Instead, Dr. O’Malley says, the grieving person needs to “sink into the sadness.” Experience it. Allow it to be.
I have found myself struggling with the expectation that I should have gotten to acceptance. There has been some self-criticism that I haven’t gotten there yet. A wise friend told me, “right now accept that you’re in a state of rejection.”
Another of Dr. O’Malley’s sentences caused me to cry with relief:
…When I suggested a support group, Mary rejected the idea. But I insisted. She later described the relief she felt in the presence of other bereaved parents, in a place where no acting was required. It was a place where people understood that they didn’t really want to achieve closure after all. To do so would be to lose a piece of a sacred bond.
Those last bolded sentences are exactly how I feel. I want part of me to always be raw and open to the depth of feeling I am experiencing right now; to always be able to experience the depth of our love that is manifested in the depth of my grief. I don’t want to “get over it.” To do that would be to lose Arthur.
Getting grief right is being authentic, being honest about how I feel. Thank you Dr. O’Malley for helping me give myself the permission to grieve however is right for me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Off Balance

I’m a fairly coordinated person. Ordinarily. But in the months after Arthur died I had some painful falls.

The first was on my first hike after Arthur’s death, early last spring. As I was coming down a series of switchbacks on my way home I stumbled and fell flat on my face. I had my camera slung over my shoulder; how I kept from breaking it I don’t know. But I did slice open my left thumb next to the nail, and abraded some skin on my left hand and right elbow. All in all I was very blessed not to have hurt myself worse. The weird thing is I stumbled on the way up the trail in almost exactly the same spot.
Then ten days later I wrote this in my journal:
Here’s something weird: I’m often uncoordinated, still, after all these weeks. It’s like I’m a different person. I just did a little housecleaning. I was walking backwards dusting on top of the screen and fell over the center speaker, falling flat on my back. The center speaker has been sitting in that same position on the floor for five years. Then half an hour later I mopped the wood floors. When I finished I tried to position the mop in the bucket so it would sit without tipping over, and I ended up tipping the bucket over and spilling most of the water on the office rug and floor. And I still have a bandage on my thumb reminding me of that horrible fall on the hike ten days ago.
These accidents were brought to mind by something I read recently. A woman had fallen and broken her foot not long after her husband died. While the orthopedist was working with her foot she asked him whether this was a common injury for people who are grieving, and, she wrote: “The orthopedist, without even looking up from my injured foot said, ‘Of course, someone who is grieving has lost their balance.’”
In my worst moments of grief it feels like the ground has been pulled out from under me and I’m falling…

Monday, December 21, 2015

Death Cafe

Last spring I spent some days wandering around downtown Asheville; I felt a strong need to be around people. I was surprised to find a ‘Before I Die’ wall on one of the major thoroughfares. This was a chalkboard with one sentence repeated over and over again: “Before I Die I’d Like to_______________.” Passersby were invited to fill in the blank with chalk that was always available in a little cup.
People had written things like: make a difference, go to Paris, be loved, be happy. I filmed there one day, which you can see here: 

There was a sign on the wall that told who sponsored the wall. It was a group called “Third Messenger.” Another thing they sponsored was something called “Death Café.”
When I got home I looked the group up online and found that, unfortunately, they weren’t going to be having another Death Café for a few months.
When the Café finally happened it was totally different than I’d imagined. I thought it would be a bunch of grieving, lost souls like me, sharing about people who had died, like a grief support group. Instead it was in the spirit of the ‘Before I Die’ Wall: What can you do in your life now to make your death a time of peace, not regret? What shift do you need to make in your priorities? What do you need to start doing? What do you need to stop doing?
We started with a guided meditation where we were asked to imagine ourselves on our deathbed in extreme old age. What would we want to have done in our lives? Who would we imagine to be with us as we die? Then we imagined dying in 10 years, then 1 year, then 1 month, then tomorrow. By that time the reality of death was quite vivid.
After that we broke into small groups of 5 or 6 and talked for an hour. At first it felt awkward, of course, but it was amazing how quickly my group began to share at a very deep, intimate level. And from the way none of the groups wanted to stop at the end of that hour, other people had the same experience. I’d never before experienced such a shift with strangers. Quite remarkable.
A member of my group is a hospice nurse, and she said that people die in all sorts of ways, just like they’re born in lots of different ways, but they all get to the place of peace before they die. I liked hearing that. She also said she was hesitant to mention it because she doesn’t feel like it’s helped her at all with her fear of death.
What I found out is that Death Café is an international movement that started in England four years ago. On the website, they say “Our objective is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” In other words, when we recognize we are going to die we take life more seriously. (
There is such a taboo in our culture about speaking about death, and Death Café is trying to change that. There are Death Cafés in many cities in the U.S., and if there isn’t one in your city, the website has a guide to starting your own. I left that first night knowing I’d be back every time I could. I was at one last night. I’ll be back again.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Undeveloped Side of the Personality

On March 10, a month after Arthur died, I wrote in my journal: An insight I had last night was that I can take you [Arthur] inside me and make myself a more whole person. Last night I wrote this note to myself:
Maybe what’s going to come out of all this is me becoming a whole person (at least more whole), taking you inside my heart and learning from our pain (relationship issues) how to heal the dysfunctional parts of myself.
What I was thinking about specifically was my weakness, how I have played life safe and been passive in relationships, including the one with Arthur. In particular I have always been reluctant to speak my mind. I was afraid if I said what I really thought I’d blow my nice-guy image. That was something I really admired about Arthur; he was very courageous about saying exactly how it was for him in almost every situation.
The day I had that insight I was talking to a friend, S. She asked me why I didn’t want to go kayaking with her and an acquaintance, P. I considered making something up, but then decided, what the hell, why not be honest, and said, “Because I’m not a big fan of P. I don’t think she’s genuine.” S replied, “That’s just what my boyfriend’s been telling me for years, and I’m just starting to see it myself. Nobody can ever be that upbeat all the time.” I said, “And I think that she thinks she’s being genuine, and that makes her even more delusional.”
It felt good to be honest, plus that means S won’t be inviting me to do things with her and P and wondering why I say no.
And it felt good because it was as if I was integrating that aspect of Arthur into myself.
Another thing I always liked about Arthur was that he was easily moved by a piece of music, or a work of art, or a poem. Tears would come to his eyes, and when he would turn and see my eyes dry he would question how I could be unaffected. He often called me an ‘ice queen,’ which I found highly offensive at the time, but now that my heart has been broken open I recognize that he was right.
Now I am easily moved by a song, or a work or art, or a poem, and tears come easily to my eyes, and I am happy that this is a new part of who I am.
Recently a friend told me about a book that helped her when she was going through a difficult time, called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges. He wrote:
Although people are seldom conscious of the fact, relationships are always structured by unspoken agreements. Beginning very early in the relationship, there is a psychological division of labor: One person takes care of the practical issues and the other handles the human ones; or one expresses emotions and the other anchors the relationship; or one is full of plans and the other is the tough critic. Each has always been somewhat that way, but the partnership lets them become more so—until one person becomes a stand-in for the undeveloped side of the other’s personality.

Perhaps that is also part of the grief of losing a spouse; that substitute for my undeveloped self has disappeared and I’m feeling the emptiness of being a partial person. It’s time to become a whole person. Is some of this pain I’m feeling growing pains?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Poetry Helped Save My Sanity

I’ve never been a fan of poetry. Arthur always thought that was silly of me. And it was, since Arthur, a songwriter, was actually a poet.
The book on Arthur’s bedside table when he died was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman was Arthur’s favorite poet; Arthur believed Whitman expressed the theme of universal love in an exquisite way.
A story from Arthur’s youth that speaks eloquently of his heart involves Whitman: on the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Arthur stood alone under a streetlamp and read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the first poem in Whitman’s “Memories of President Lincoln.”
When we were married (the first time…it’s a long story) our vows were passages from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”
Seeing this book by Arthur’s bedside was quite moving, and I picked it up the day after he died. Little did I know in that moment what comfort and solace those poems would bring me. For months I started every morning with a poem or part of a poem. Whitman helped me hold on to my sanity in the darkest hours of my grief, and that is not an exaggeration.
Six weeks or so after Arthur died I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. This is a memoir of the year after her husband died. Didion felt the same way about poetry; she wrote that poetry was the most soothing literature, and it was the most “exact” about the experience of grief.
In my journal I speak almost daily of the beauty I’ve found in that morning’s reading of Whitman. Here are some of the passages that moved me most deeply.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” from “Sea-drift”: In this poem Whitman is a child, living near the ocean shore, who often goes to watch a pair of birds tending their nest. Then one day the female disappears, and for the rest of the summer the male grieves.

There’s a passage where Whitman translates the male bird’s song of grief, and I cried at the way it described my experience:
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you, my love, for you…
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
Arthur and I were soul mates, and it feels as if part of my soul has been torn from me.
Whitman finishes the poem by saying that this experience, hearing the message of the bird’s song of grief, changed his life and allowed him to hear thousands of songs of sorrow.
In “The Sleepers,” there were a couple of lines that spoke of what the early days of grief were like for me; Whitman is imagining himself as all the various sleepers and dreamers around the world, but there’s one who’s not sleeping:
It is I too, the sleepless widow looking out on the winter midnight,
I see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth.
There were many a night when I was up at 3 and 4 am looking out at the stars and the moon shining on the icy February landscape out my bedroom window.
“From Noon to Starry Night” talks about the primacy of love, and ends with joy, ecstasy, and getting to the place where it is enough just to be.
Blow again trumpeter! And for thy theme,
Take now the enclosing theme of all, the solvent and the setting,
Love, that is pulse of all, the sustenance and the pang,
The heart of man and woman all for love,
No other theme but love—knitting, enclosing, all-diffusing love…
Love, that is all the earth to lovers—love, that mocks time and space,
Love, that is day and night—love, that is sun and moon and stars,
Love, that is crimson, sumptuous, sick with perfume,
No other words but words of love, no other thought but love.                               
Joy! joy! in freedom, worship, love! joy in the ecstasy of life!
Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe!
Joy! joy! all over joy!

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Only Words Left to Say

I love you.Thank you for loving me.I miss you.I am sorry that I hurt you.

Arthur has been gone ten months now and I haven't thought of anything else I need or want to say.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Tomorrow is a Mirage

In the last week I’ve been looking back through the journal I have kept since Arthur died, on the 9th of February of this year. This passage from March 2 jumped out at me:
Last night I had a wonderful dream full of portent. There was a gathering of young people, like some kind of church service, and I was going to speak. During the service for some reason I walked down the hall and found a room filled with old and ill men. A small, crippled man was down on the floor and couldn’t get up, and I tenderly helped him to his feet. One of the men was holding a baby and asked me to take it. A person came along and said I wasn’t really supposed to be there, and it was time for me to speak anyway.
On my way to the lectern I handed the baby to someone (and hugged my niece Gwen, who was wearing a pretty white dress). Then I started to speak, about loss. I talked about how we take someone or thing for granted, and forget to tell them we love them, or learn more about them, or just fully enjoy who or what they are. Then one day they are gone and so much of our feeling of loss comes from the realization that while they were with us we thought we always had tomorrow to fully pay attention to them. Tomorrow is a mirage. Love what you have today. Pay attention, say I love you, ask questions. You may never get another chance.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Parents, Spouses, Children

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, in which twenty children died.
Over the last ten months I have thought a lot about this question: what is worse, losing a child, spouse, or parent?
Of course it’s a silly question. All death is hard. There are no easy partings from a loved one. Plus, all deaths are different: the death of a parent when you’re 15 would be different from the death of your parent when you’re 70.
I had a conversation with a friend via email about this. She’d sent me an article that said a year was the normal grieving time for adults (for any kind of death) and it was normal for a child to grieve for six months. But, we both agreed, the nature of the relationship would have a great deal to do with the length of grieving. For example, if it was an abusive, alcoholic father who you hadn’t spoken to in years who had died, that’s going to be a very different period of grieving than for a gentle, loving father with whom you had dinner once a week for years. Or in the case of the death of a spouse, those who had an intensely close 34-year relationship like Arthur and me will have a grief very different from a couple who had grown indifferent after seven years and were thinking of divorce before one of them died.
Both of my parents are still alive. I didn’t have any children. So my only experience is with the loss of a spouse. But in my imagining, it seems to me that losing a child must be the hardest grief of all. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

You Have Spinach Between Your Teeth

This is one of the first lessons that Arthur taught me: a true friend will tell you when you have spinach caught in your teeth. It may not always be a pleasant thing to do, to let someone know, say, that their fly is unzipped—in fact our culture programs us to believe that it is actually impolite to do so. But when you think about it, that’s quite insane! If I ever have spinach stuck between my teeth when I’m out and about, I hope I have a friend nearby who cares about me enough to tell me.
A true friend will do even more; they will find a way to let you know when you are erring in life: when you’re hurting yourself by the way you present yourself, or by the way you talk about other people, or by the way you’re not taking care of your body.
I thought of this while reading Anam Cara, by John O’Donoghue. He wrote:
No one can see his life totally. As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind spot where you are not able to see. Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself. Your ‘Kalyana-mitra,’ [a Buddhist concept of ‘noble friend’] complements your vision in a kind and critical way. Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.

Anam Cara means ‘soul friend’ in Gaelic. Mr. O’Donoghue’s book is a lovely, extended meditation on a spiritual path of heart: friendship, work, sensuality, solitude, aging, and death.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Complexity of Emotions

Just recently I read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, a compassionate look at what it is like to be ‘intersex,’ a condition where your gender is not clear at birth.
There was a passage I loved about emotions. Eugenides talks about how we call emotions by simple names, like ‘sadness,’ or ‘happiness,’ but in reality our emotions are much more complex. I liked how Eugenides put it so much I copied it out for my journal: 
Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions, like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.”
I think this is a profound statement about emotions in general. Perhaps one of the reasons we struggle with our emotions is because we try and simplify them into one category or another. I love this photo of Arthur, in front of the Angel that was supposedly made by Thomas Wolfe's father. Arthur was a big fan of Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel and often quoted the first lines, including 
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? 

I know these lines were on his heart when he turned to me with that look in his eyes.
This complexity is a big part of grief. I’ve felt: “fear of change in wake of spouse’s death,” and “the joy that mingles with sorrow when talking about your departed lover,” and “excitement about a new direction in my life mixed with guilt that I can find pleasure in something that is a result of a loved one’s death,” and even, at rare moments, “the bliss of a mystical connection to my dead lover intensifying the loss of his physical presence.”
I’d love it if readers shared their own complex emotions.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

I Remember

Last summer I read a book about writing called Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg. She offered a number of exercises for the reader to try, and one was called “I Remember.”
At the time I was struggling with how to write about Arthur and my relationship. The topic was so big and the amount of material so huge I didn’t know where to start.
Ms. Goldberg suggests that you start a sentence with “I remember” and just let your mind flow. I was amazed at what came out. The first day I wrote for three hours without stopping. I spent days doing this, and now have pages and pages of precious memories to enjoy over the years. You can also try ‘I don’t remember’; that will spur another sort of memory.
Here are a few of my memories; you’ll see I wrote them as if it was in a letter to Arthur:
I remember our first date. I almost didn’t go. I was really uncertain whether I wanted to start dating—I had just moved to San Francisco, I was ending another relationship, you were older—but I had promised you and I hate breaking my word. By the time I showed up for the movie, Airplane!, we barely had enough time to get to our seats before it started. I don’t remember watching the movie, but I remember you always saying you were afraid you were scaring me off because you laughed so hard during the film. We went to a sidewalk café afterwards. I had a glass of wine, making me feel so grown-up and sophisticated in a San Francisco café. We talked. And it was the talking that hooked me. I can’t remember now what we talked about, but there was something there that was new, that made me say, I want to see this man again.
I remember watching you shave. This was in the first years of our relationship. I remember sitting on the sink, feeling like I had all the time in the world, loving that feeling, loving watching how you moved your hands to follow all the curves and hollows of your face.
I remember playing in the waves with you when we lived in Florida. We would spend hours in the ocean. You showed me how to dive under a wave at just the right moment, or how to bob over the wave like a roller coaster. Then we’d swim out past the waves and lie on our backs and float.
I remember sitting on the rock wall at a random pulloff overlooking the Grand Canyon, watching dusk fall, waiting for the full moon to rise. Car after car rushed into the lot behind us, people hurried forward and snapped photos then dashed away again, frantically looking for the perfect spot, the iconic experience. We were content with our spot, and we inhaled the canyon over the course of two or three hours, just sitting. The full moon rose right in front of us. Phenomenal.

 Note: Another interesting exercise from Wild Mind: “I am, I am not.” This can be an excellent tool for self-inquiry.

Edit: a friend commented on Facebook that she had done this for her mother in a letter a couple of weeks before she died. What a beautiful gift to give someone.

I found another photo from that day at the Grand Canyon, one of Arthur that I took as the sun was setting. I love the expression in his eyes.

Friday, December 11, 2015

I See Your Sorrow

Grief makes me feel as if I am naked emotionally. In the early days it was hard to go out into the world because I felt as if I was one raw, exposed nerve end. I remember driving down a city street, one I’d driven a thousand times before, feeling overwhelmed at the sight of life continuing on as if nothing had happened.
I remember the first time I went to the grocery store after Arthur died. I was so vulnerable, so tender, I had trouble with the basics of negotiating the transaction. Surely, I thought, the clerk will notice. But from the woman’s actions it appeared that she was completely oblivious to my broken heart.
This was astounding. It felt so obvious to me, so unmistakable. I looked around me at the other people in the store, and thought: if she can’t see my sorrow, what sorrows am I missing in these people all around me?
The truth is we all have sorrows of some sort—maybe not the death of a beloved spouse, but the failure to achieve our passion, or the pain of being misunderstood, or the loneliness of being socially awkward, or the anguish of feeling inadequate—all of us have something.
My sorrow is helping me to be gentler with the people I interact with, because I see that they’re hurting too.

My prayer is that my broken heart stays broken open.

I took this photo in May of 2015
on Looking Glass Mountain, NC

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The List of Things To Tell You is Long

From our 'A Question of Meaning' TV show,
in which we had spontaneous discussions
Arthur and I talked to each other about almost everything. Conversation was a huge part of our relationship. When I think of the things I miss now that he is gone, conversation looms large.
Conversation was how we worked out problems in our relationship, how we developed our philosophy, how we understood other people and what was happening in the world.
Just recently I thought, “I’m stupider without Arthur to bounce ideas off. He would often show me something I missed. Together we’d see a larger picture than either of us could see alone.”
Plus I’m always encountering things I want to tell Arthur about. Back on March 21 I wrote, “The hardest part about you being gone, Arthur, is there are so many things I want to talk with you about, they’re piling up. That’s why I already have 80 pages in this grief journal, this is the only way I have to keep talking with you.”
Just recently I saw a reference to a John Lennon quote. (I saw this online and can’t get the source of this quote, unfortunately):
John Lennon once told a story about his early education. He said, “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” For his teachers, what he wanted to be had to reflect what he would do that would benefit society. His happiness was a nonsensical answer to them.
Arthur would have absolutely loved that. His (Arthur’s) whole life was a rejection of those teachers’ attitude and an embrace of Lennon’s.
As another example, Arthur and I wrote a story a few years ago called The People vs God, as a vehicle for our Game of God theology. The story was set in the future when the technology of instant translation was perfected so there would no longer be misunderstandings based on language. Just today I read in an article that Skype has introduced simultaneous translation in English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin and Spanish. Oh how I wish I could tell Arthur…

Note: If you'd like to hear how Arthur and I conversed with each other, check out this A Question of Meaning show. Fast forward past the song (unless you want to listen!) and start about 4:30 in. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

H is for Hawk

I find myself voraciously consuming books about grief. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, was received with rapture by critics earlier this year; a New York Times review called it ‘breathtaking’; it won awards.
A friend gave it to me, thinking I would find solace in it; the book has been promoted as the story of a young woman coping with her father’s sudden death. I expected it to be about grief and loss. It wasn’t at all. It was about Ms. Macdonald’s relationship with a hawk.
The New York Times has just listed it as one of the ten best books of 2015, and I want to speak up about it, to let others know that this is not a book that will help someone who is grieving.
Here are my journal entries as I read the book last summer:
Reading H is for Hawk and feeling somewhat outraged. Where is her poor father? He almost doesn’t exist. Or her mother and her grief? Her father was a photographer. He was out taking photos one night when he had a heart attack and died. The last photo in his camera was taken from the ground; perhaps it was taken as he was having his heart attack. Ms Macdonald says she looked at it once and never wanted to see it again, like it was something too horrible to consider. Really? I’d cherish that photograph. That was her father saying, “Look! I am dying and this is what I am seeing.” It says to me what an amazing man her father was, capable of documenting even that (like the female scientist in the film “Brainstorm”). It was her father saying, “This—death—is also worthy of documentation.” An incredibly courageous and beautiful act, and you don’t want to look at it?! Here is a gift from your father of his last impressions and you don’t want it? I can’t understand this.
H is for Hawk reminds me of another grief memoir, by a woman who lost her mother (The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke). It is self-indulgent in similar ways. In these memoirs about the death of parents, and admittedly my sample size is still quite small, the authors don’t seem consumed by grief like I was, like what C.S. Lewis describes in A Grief Observed. They skip over the emotions of grief and spend most of their time on themselves, on how they healed. H for Hawk is like Wild, where the grieving ‘child’ goes on an epic journey of self-discovery. But:
Do they wrestle with their relationship with the person who died? Is their book about becoming a better person because of that wrestling, or is it about taking on a difficult task to distract them from grief?
I would say the latter is true for H is for Hawk.
Read more in Hawk. She writes short passages on life and death, yet they don’t seem profound to me at all. Her father is still a mystery and barely mentioned. Her grief is just assumed, like of course she’s sad because her father died. ‘Nuff said. There’s no substance to it, it doesn’t make you feel anything when she says she’s grieving, sometimes I think she read what other people said grieving was like to be able to throw in a comment here or there. And even these are astoundingly infrequent.
I came home and finished H is for Hawk. What a disappointment. I read some 1-star reviews for it on Amazon yesterday while filling a few minutes before going to a dinner engagement. I agreed with all of them: boring, all about hawks, nothing about father, self-indulgent, has emotional problems not connected to grief, pretentious, anytime she came close to sharing an emotion or feeling she’d duck and run, padded with T.H. White in an incredibly annoying fashion (a large section of the book wasn’t about her at all, it documented the author T.H. White’s struggles to learn how to be a falconer).

Who are these literary types who certify books like this as ‘dazzling’ and lavish awards? My only conclusion is these critics have no idea what grief is.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Fallen Trees

I love hiking in the winter. I love how things hidden by summer’s growth are revealed. Mosses and lichens shine in the winter sunlight hitting the forest floor. Bird’s nests are visible high in the trees. The life stories of trees are written in skeletal displays of twisting trunks and branches.
Death is on display also. The forest is full of fallen trees. I find them beautiful, their strong bodies feeding the soil and other life forms.

A few days ago I visited a special place in the forest near my home where I have found a consistent strong connection with Arthur. There have been some strong storms since the last time I was there in late September and some more trees came down. I liked standing for a few minutes with the newly-broken trees, honoring their lives and their deaths.