Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Take More Videos

I have one regret. I don’t have more of Arthur on video. And I have over a hundred hours of him on video. One of the things we did in 2010 was produce a weekly hour-long TV show called “A Question of Meaning.” The show consisted entirely of the two of us talking about subjects of interest to us. This means I have 52 hours of us talking to each other. What a gift…and I still want more (grief is insatiable).
It’s like a miracle when I watch one of the AQOM shows. For an hour it’s like Arthur is right here with me. In the following segment we answer a viewer’s question about the nature of our relationship.

But my advice to everyone and anyone is to take more video. Take more photos. When someone you love dies you will never have enough.
Don’t just video special moments. Video ordinary moments. I have video of Arthur and I playing cards with his parents, for an entire hour (the length of the videotape, this was in 1994). And video of an entire Thanksgiving dinner with them. These are precious because they capture life. Not people posed for the camera, or extraordinary moments of excitement, but those moments that seemed very ordinary at the time but in retrospect have become very precious.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Books about Grief I

I love to read, so I’ve been searching out all the books on grieving I can find. I’ve read mostly memoirs, personal accounts of the author’s passage through grief. Interestingly, the books I’ve found so far are about the loss of a spouse or a parent. For some reason the best-known books in this genre don’t seem to include books by those who have lost a child. Is that loss too painful to write about?
My favorite book, by far, and clearly a favorite of many because it is often mentioned, is C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. The book is very short but quite powerful—raw, immediate, passionate, questioning. There were many passages when my eyes were too full of tears to see the page. I felt like he expressed my feelings over and over again.
Lewis is remarkably honest about the details of his grief and about how his wife’s death caused him to question both his faith and the nature of God (you can read pertinent passages here).
His questioning of God rang true for me. I was shocked that the other writers I’ve read didn’t talk about this. Grief was an existential crisis for me that entailed the questioning of everything. Lewis doesn’t question the existence of God, but asks whether God is a Cosmic Sadist, or a Vet intent on Vivisection, tearing our guts apart while we’re still alive for some reason of His own. I wanted to know what the purpose of life was—what’s the point if we’re just going to die?
Lewis describes how he desperately wants to know where his beloved wife is, and hates platitudes like “she’s at peace” or “she’s with God.” His experience was that once he passed through the early days of desperation and was less passionately seeking her presence, he began to experience her presence in a unique way. Not in the ways he would have thought, but with an unemotional, almost intellectual knowing.
This book gave me the sense that I wasn’t alone, that others had been here before me.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

When Your Eye is Filled With Beauty...

Beauty has been one of my greatest solaces in this year of my grief. I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods in order to immerse myself in beauty. I’ve also started doing some reading on the subject, and my first stop was the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donoghue’s book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (listen to an interview with him). His subtitle expresses my experience: beauty is Nature’s comforting embrace telling me there is Some Thing More to the world than meets the eye.

What is beauty? Is beauty something objective, present in certain objects and absent in others? Is beauty subjective, something “in the eye of the beholder”?
What I have learned this year, and found confirmed in O’Donoghue’s book, is there is a third possibility: Beauty is an essential part what is.
The ancient Greeks thought this way. Plato considered Beauty to be one of the Ideal Forms that constitute the true reality behind our physical world of space-time. Medieval philosophers believed there were five ‘Transcendentals’: Being, the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These transcendentals are the foundation of the universe. These five principles underlay everything. This means that no matter where you look, if you have eyes to see, you will see the transcendentals. A whole book could be written on what this means, but I want to stay focused on beauty. What this means to me is that Beauty is at the essence of everything.

O’Donoghue quotes another writer, Francesca Aran Murphy, on this point:
Part of what it means to be, is to be beautiful. Beauty is not superadded to things: it is one of the springs of their reality. It is not that which effects a luscious response in perceivers; it is the interior geometry of things, making them perceptible as forms.
I love the phrase ‘the interior geometry of things.’ This is like the Medieval philosopher’s belief that the transcendentals form the superstructure of the universe. Is this why ‘sacred geometry’ is so beautiful? Why mathematicians talk about the beauty of an equation?

I have written in earlier blog posts about perceiving ‘bounteous beauty’ in nature; what I meant by that is this ‘essential beauty.’ It doesn’t mean seeing an object that I subjectively experience as beautiful, like a flower or sunset, but seeing the profound, awe-inspiring experience that ALL is beautiful. It is precisely the all-embracing nature of this beauty that points me to something beyond the physical.
O’Donoghue agrees with this conception of beauty as an aspect of being [‘ontological’ means questions concerned with ‘the nature of being’]:
Ontologically, beauty is the secret sound of the deepest thereness of things. To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience, to glimpse the subtle embrace of belonging where we are wed to the divine, the beauty of every moment, of every thing.
In the 18th century European philosophers began to question the idea of objective beauty; they argued that beauty is also subjective. As time went on the conception of beauty moved farther and farther into the realm of subjectivity; today it seems that many people in our culture believe that there is no such thing as objective beauty.

Of course there is an element of subjectivity in my response to the beauty (or perceived lack) in a particular object. For example, you and I might disagree on the beauty of a painting. I may find the work of Jackson Pollack frivolous and you may find his paintings works of sublime beauty. That’s the subjective level. What modern philosophers are saying (I think) is there is no objective standard that can definitively settle our disagreement.
But the Beauty that O’Donoghue and I are talking about is at a deeper level. This level is embedded in the beingness of things in the world. At a level below that of subject and object.
O’Donoghue had this to say about the concept that beauty was subjective:
We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person’s taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.
When your eye is filled with beauty, beauty is all you see.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Elephant in the Room

I went to a new dentist today. When we were having our initial consult it came out that my husband had died. The dentist was instantly sympathetic; it turns out his first wife died at age 39 from a brain tumor. This was twenty years ago but as he talked I could tell he was still sad about losing her.
We talked about grief a little, and then he said, “Our culture has a real problem facing death. Have you noticed how people avoid talking to you?”
“Yeah I notice,” I replied.
“My wife was quite well known and I couldn’t believe how many people would see me at an event or somewhere after she had died and wouldn’t say anything about her death, they’d just talk about the weather or something. Like they were afraid they were going to say the wrong thing so they said nothing.”
I told him, “What I started doing was just bringing it up myself because I couldn’t stand it. I’d say, ‘I know it’s really awkward but believe me, I’m used to having this awkward conversation now so let’s get it over with.’”
“People didn’t seem to understand that I wanted to talk about it. And when you don’t it’s like there’s this elephant in the room,” he said earnestly.
“And if you have some kind of ongoing relationship with the person, that elephant is just going to keep growing until it crowds out any possibility of relationship.”
Recently a friend wrote me an email after reading the post in which I offered some suggestions on how to treat a grieving person. She thought people were paralyzed by their fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. And she also thought that each grieving person would feel differently about this. I know these are both true. But here was this dentist, twenty years after his wife’s death, talking as if it had happened last year. It had clearly been traumatic for him that people had not spoken to him about his wife.
Last week I read a memoir by a widow called Grieving: A Love Story. The author, Ruth Coughlin, worked as an editor in a newspaper office. After her husband died and she went back to work, half of her co-workers offered her their condolences but the other half avoided her at all costs. A friend had warned her that would happen. She was as bothered by it as my dentist.
This awkwardness is part of our culture’s confused relationship with death. Born from our denial and segregation of death from ordinary life, we try to hold ourselves apart from death whenever it comes close. It’s like there’s this voice whispering in our ear: “If I don’t speak to that woman whose husband died, I won’t risk getting contaminated by death.” That sounds irrational but there’s some dynamic like that at work in our minds.
There is a couple that Arthur and I knew casually. Over the few years we’ve known them I have become better friends with the woman. After Arthur died, I have seen this couple a few times, and the man has not mentioned Arthur’s death once. This is where I learned about the elephant—every time I saw this man there was the unacknowledged reality of Arthur’s absence right in my face. And that elephant kept getting bigger until I was pushed out of his life; I haven’t seen him in a long time.
I think what’s crucial for a bereaved person is to have the death acknowledged. When someone doesn’t speak to me about the death they’ve left our relationship, whatever it may be, frozen at the moment of my husband’s death. So they and I are both reminded of that moment every time we see each other. That’s actually worse than getting it over with and speaking about it for a few minutes. All you have to do is say, “I know. I’m sorry.”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Lazarus by David Bowie

What a beautiful gift David Bowie has given the world with his music video “Lazarus.” This video was released a few days before Bowie died, and from what I understand, was conceived and produced after he was diagnosed with cancer.
In the video, a blindfolded Bowie lies in an old-fashioned hospital bed (with buttons over the eyes), and occasionally levitates, while singing “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.”
There’s a woman who is a little scary, sometimes she’s under the bed or standing against the wall reaching towards him like maybe she’s trying to hold on to him.
Then the scene cuts to Bowie dancing, without the blindfold. He sits down at a desk where he writes furiously. The video cuts back to the figure in the bed singing, “Oh I’ll be free/ Just like that bluebird/ Oh I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me” as he lifts his hands to the sky. The video ends with the unblindfolded Bowie standing up from the desk and backing into the wardrobe behind him like a coffin.
Thank you David Bowie for having the courage to make this incredible statement.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


I’ve been mining the box of loose photos that my husband Arthur and I accumulated over the course of our relationship. I found one from thirty years ago that was taken in Arthur’s grandmother’s house. In this photo Arthur is showing his cousin the book a friend of his wrote called White Trash Cooking. Arthur is dead, his grandmother is dead, the cookbook’s author is dead, that house doesn’t exist anymore…Looking at that photo made me think how as you age you start living with ghosts—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that people and places no longer exist on the physical plane but only in your mind.
Maybe this is one of the reasons older people start losing their grip on reality, it suddenly occurred to me. Most of the things and people that matter to them now exist only in their memories, and they prefer the reality of their memories to ‘actual’ reality in which they are alone.
This brought up for me another difficult aspect of grief, which is that you become the keeper-of-the-memories. Our point-of-view, our subjective reality, is shaped by our memories, and as long as we have at least one other person who was there when a particular memory was formed we can confirm that we are anchored to reality. We can confirm that memory is ‘real.’ But losing our partner-in-memory unmoors us. Was it real or did I just imagine it…who knows?

Thursday, January 7, 2016


In my experience, grief stimulates existential questions. An example of a question that kicks around in my head a lot these days is: What is the point of living if we’re just going to die? Are we born just to have kids, work a job, buy stuff, and die?
I was a little gloomy today and brought these questions up with a friend. He said they reminded him of a scene from the film ‘My Dinner with Andre,’ in which Andre tells his dinner companion about a type of self-reflection where you ask
the same questions that Stanislavski said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? And where am I going? But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself.
The quote from the film brought to mind a passage I’d seen recently from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. 
This is so true of my experience. I have never worried about where I came from, and I haven’t heard anyone else talk about that, although I’ve heard a lot of discussion about what happens after life. Is it because the universe exists in our reality only from our point of view? From our vantage point the universe only truly became alive with our entrance. All that history that happened before we were born is merely wallpaper for the events of our life. But how can the universe go on without us being here to observe it? And who wants to become wallpaper for someone else’s life?
When I got home my cat was playing with her ball. I got down on the floor and played with her. She told me: this is the point of being alive. Being. Experiencing. Loving.
Thanks KittyCat.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Animal Dreams, Continued

Today a hawk reminded me that I’d forgotten my encounters with birds. In yesterday’s post I wrote about a dream I’d had that told me to write about my encounters with animals. So I did. But I forgot the birds.
This morning I went to the dentist. I have an unusual problem, a dental cyst between two teeth. It was removed by a periodontist but he’s unhappy with how my mouth looks; he says he’s not sure what’s wrong. So he sent me to an endodontist to evaluate it. I saw her this morning, and she also seems unsure what to do. She told me she needed to confer with the periodontist before she could tell me anything.
When I left I missed Arthur horribly. I needed someone to talk to, someone to help me through this problem.
A little later I was driving down a street in a neighborhood and I said out loud, “I miss you Arthur, I need you right now,” and just at that moment a hawk flew across the road in front of me. The road curved and the hawk curved and it flew along in front of me, just fifteen feet in front of my windshield, for thirty feet or more, before it turned off into the woods. I felt so blessed. The hawk felt like a calming voice from the universe saying, “I am with you.”

This made me remember a couple of experiences I had with birds in the last year. There’s a special tree I found on the Mountain-to-Sea trail where I feel a strong connection to Arthur. I hike up there regularly and spend an hour or more just sitting with the tree. I also do some qigong while I’m there, which is a Chinese system of movements related to Tai Chi.
The bird encounters both happened while I was doing a movement I came up with myself called ‘Exalt-Bow.’ I hold my arms out palms up and raise them above my head, lifting my face to the sky, then bring my palms together overhead and bring them down, prayer-form, into a bow.
The first time I did that was last April. As I lifted my arms and face to the sky I spotted a bird, I think it was a hawk, soaring right overhead. Just as I spotted it, the bird stalled so it paused right over me. Then it circled higher and higher right over my head, before finally flying off. It felt like a visitation from Arthur, flying high and free.
Last week I was up there again. While I was doing Exalt-Bow and lifting my arms into the air a bird came soaring from behind me and, just when I saw it the bird paused, just like that hawk in April. It held its position for a moment, then began to soar again, slowly, as I continued lifting my arms to the sky. I spoke aloud: “Thank you. Thank you. I don’t know what it means but I like it.”

Monday, January 4, 2016

Animal Dreams

Last night I dreamt about an animal, some kind of cat. The dream woke me up about 3 am. Half-asleep, I turned on the light and wrote on the pad on my bedside table: write about animal encounters in blog. I promptly fell back asleep.
When I saw the note this morning I remembered the dream but wondered what it meant. What animal encounters? Then I remembered the bear, and the deer, and the squirrels…
I’m not a big believer in dreams, but this was so unusual I decided to honor the dream’s message and, as a friend of mine says, follow the prompt.
There are so many things that will always make me think of Arthur. Squirrels are one of them. There have been many times over the last months when I have been despairing and a squirrel has shown up. I live on the edge of the woods. In the backyard there’s what Arthur called a ‘squirrel highway.’ The squirrels take the same path day after day through the trees. A Bradford pear tree is in the middle of their route. The squirrels love that tree—in the spring they hang upside down eating the buds and in the fall they eat the ripe fruit. Arthur loved watching them out of our office window. Countless times last year I would be sitting in the office, sad and bereft, looking out the window, and a squirrel would waggle its tail or leap across a gap between trees and my heart would lift.  

I live at the head of a cove, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it’s not uncommon to see bears here. This summer mother bears came strolling through the backyard many times with their cubs. One morning I heard an altercation between two adults, one of them a mother with cubs. The mother and cubs climbed up a tree for safety and I got some video of them in the tree and climbing down an hour later.

One day when I had hiked up the mountain behind my house I was sitting relaxed on a rock outcropping. I heard a noise in the bushes below; it was obviously a large animal. A few seconds later an adult bear emerged, no more than twenty feet from me. I had researched what to do in this situation—first speak to the bear then make yourself look larger if it comes towards you. So I spoke aloud: “I’m here, I know you didn’t expect to find me here, this is a wonderful place isn’t it, I’ll be leaving soon…” and as I talked it looked at me, then turned to amble off to my right. But after a few steps it turned and started moving towards me and I remembered I had food in my backpack that was halfway between the bear and me.
I grabbed a stick that happened to be nearby, stood up and yelled at the bear. It was startled and turned and moved off at a fast pace. I made sure it got out of sight before I let go of my menacing stance. I gathered my things and left. But I was elated. That was the closest I have ever been to a bear in the woods.
I’ve lived in this house for six years now. I’d never seen a deer in my yard until last summer, when I saw a deer in the backyard twice in two days. That was it for deer sightings. In December I read the journal I kept last year. On Christmas Eve about sunset I looked out into the backyard and a deer came strolling through. What was notable about this was I had read the passages about seeing the deer that morning.
Mind the coincidences came into my mind. Not long ago I heard a friend tell of a beautiful encounter she had after the death of her mother. She was in a public place and a woman came and spoke with her. Some of the things this woman said made my friend feel like this was a visitation from her mother. The message she was given was ‘mind the coincidences.’

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Embrace Aloneness

Loneliness is one of the hardest facets of grief. Today I searched through the journal I’ve kept since Arthur died and ‘lonely’ is on almost every page. But I’ve noticed a change in my relationship to loneliness over the last eleven months; I’ll illustrate that change with passages from the journal:
March: The loneliness aches. I’ve realized I’ve really never been lonely before. Certainly not in the last 35 years. I always had Arthur.
I thought I liked to be alone—I often went on hikes by myself for example—but it’s become clear that that was not true aloneness. Arthur was always there when I got home. I never felt this bottomless pit of loneliness before. And being with people makes the loneliness worse; the presence of other people just highlights how alone I am.
April: There is an odd feeling of lonely and not-lonely. I am such a resourceful person and have more things I want to do than time to do them (as usual). At the same time, there is a deep loneliness for Arthur. Some of that loneliness is for someone who knows me deeply, who understands me, who knows my history and my neuroses. All this knowing creates a profound sense of rest. All pretense (or at least it feels that way) can be dropped and it’s okay just to be myself. I guess some people have friends at this level but I don’t.
I feel sorrow for those who don’t have my resources and are truly alone. If I feel the crushing weight of loneliness with the friends I have and the inner resources I have, others must be living lives of quiet desperation and inner devastation.
June: There are worse things than being alone. When I thought of this I laughed because I knew Arthur would love it. Yesterday I went to the grocery store and ran into a couple I know. I really like the woman, but her boyfriend gives me the creeps. It’s hard for me to imagine what she sees in him. “What crazy things people do to avoid being alone,” I thought as I drove home. Let me embrace my aloneness.

July: I’m so lonely. It’s hard going from having someone with you 24/7/365 to having nobody. I find myself just wandering around the house feeling empty. The house is empty. I’m empty. You were always here for me, with me, beside me. The loneliness aches.
August: Tonight I thought: it’s getting really abstract. The thought of missing you, that is. What I mean is so much time has gone by now that I’m used to waking up alone, I’m used to eating alone, I’m used to following my own schedule. So what was once a real bodily sensation of absence is getting to be more and more a mental abstraction. Part of me hates that this is happening.
September: It’s going to be a long time without you. I’m still not happy about that. I still miss you. I’m doing all kinds of things I’d never have done with you here. I love doing these things. But the loneliness for you is always waiting for me when the activity is done. It’s like there’s something wrong with the world; you’re not home waiting for me.

October: Losing a lover. This is something I am really suffering from. My entire adult life has been spent in the company of a lover. This is why I am so alone. Friends don’t even come close to replacing the complete companionship of a lover. I understand now why people re-marry. Once you know the wonder of living with a lover it is hard to live without it.
I am sad, and lonely, and confused. I miss you deeply. But the intensity is easing.
November: I was just wondering whether the fear of being alone has ruled my life. I never lived on my own, not really. I met Arthur within days of graduating from college and six months later we were living together. There were a couple of times over the years when I thought about leaving Arthur; one of the things that held me back was my fear of being on my own.
How much did I buy into some crazy belief that if you were alone that meant there was something wrong with you? That being in a relationship proved my essential okayness?
December: Embrace your aloneness. I think that is the message of this dark time of the winter solstice. Go within. Find yourself. Avoid the impulse during the holiday season to be with people just to escape being alone.
I am embracing solitude, I am breathing it in deeply and letting it feed me.
Chapter #42 of the Tao te Ching:
Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe

Friday, January 1, 2016

What to Do for Someone Who is Grieving

In honor of the New Year’s tradition of making resolutions, here are my suggestions for what to do when someone you know is grieving:
  • Send a real, physical card, whether you’re close or a casual acquaintance. Doesn’t matter if it’s six months after the death. Email is okay, but I was shocked at how high the email:card ratio was (that is, almost everyone only emailed). Doesn’t matter if it’s a dorky card, the words don’t matter anyway, a card shows you went to some effort and that’s what counts.
  • Send flowers if you’re at all close. Send them a week after the funeral. Better yet, send a flowering plant that will communicate love for a long time.
  • The first conversation is going to be awkward. Trust me, the bereaved knows all about that so don’t let that stop you from calling.
  • Be sincere; a bereaved person is very open and vulnerable. I can’t tell you how many people left phone messages, all weepy saying “whatever I can do,” and then when I called them they didn’t really want to talk, or if I left a message they never called back. I could have done without those calls. If you think this is you, don’t call, send a card.
  • Let the bereaved prattle on. In particular, let them talk about the person who died. I’ve been shocked how people seem to think I don’t want to talk about Arthur, as if I don’t want to be reminded he’s gone. Trust me, I can’t forget that, and I get a lot of pleasure telling stories about him.
  • Don’t tell me how bad you feel for not calling him, etc. I’m not really interested in how you feel guilty for not spending more time with him.
  • Don’t assume the mourner needs or wants company. For some people solitude is very healing.
  • As time goes by, send another card, or two or three. It is so nice getting a card that just says ‘I’m thinking of you.” In other words, “I know you’re still hurting and you’re in my thoughts because I love you.”