My son and I have been watching old episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood lately. It’s much easier than I realized to get engrossed in the land of make-believe and film footage of the crayon factory as an adult. But it’s even easier to rest in Fred’s compassion.
“He seems like a question answerer, conscious child idea conceiver Carl Sagan,” said Declan, looking for (and finding) the right words.
The man understood how hard it can be to be a person, especially a child. That’s been tough work for us lately, so I’m glad to be parenting in a digital age that can take us back in time.
Whether he was singing about liking people for true reasons, or his daily celebration of the fact that we’re alive and growing inside, he had this way of creating safety and space. Even though he has passed, I’m amazed to see that the shows still hold that power for my son.
In one episode, someone in the land of make-believe had invented a machine that could see into people, see something true about them, like the warmth of their heart or their love of chair-making.
When it was over, and the camera began panning above Mr. Roger’s colorful neighborhood houses and toy cars, Declan snuggled his face into my neck and pretended to look into me.
“There is lots and lots and lots of love,” he said. “And lots and lots of art, writing especially. Buddhism. The ocean. Me.”
He stopped, leaned back, and smiled at that thought for a moment. Then he snuggled back in and continued.
“All the art you’ve ever seen in museums. All the music you’ve ever listened to. Not just me but everybody you’ve ever known or loved. All the trees and flowers you’ve ever seen or smelled. All the places you’ve lived. Dogs and dolphins and other animals you loved. Blue sky. Clouds. Rain. Storms. Hurricanes. Your reflections.”
“Yes – both kinds. The ones you’ve actually seen and.. your thoughts.”
And that one. That one from my son, inspired by Fred Rogers. That’s a reflection I want to keep forever.
More Fred, because even if you think you outgrew him, you didn’t:
His touching 1969 Senate hearing testimony in defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes his reading of “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”
One of my first official acts as a newly minted 40-year-old was to help my mother pronounce my stepfather dead after a prolonged and terrible brain illness.
It was dawn on the morning after my birthday and it was harder to be sure of this than you might imagine. He left this realm the way a flashlight dims – flickering into a barely perceptible glow before extinguishing completely. We called hospice. A nurse came to confirm our suspicions and called the funeral home. I watched my five-year-old son touch his grandfather’s cool face and arms before he asked me “how do you know for sure?” The undertaker arrived. I remember moving a clay bust my mom made of my stepfather’s face out of the foyer, because I had a sudden and vivid fear that the gurney carrying his body would snag the pillar it was on and smash it to bits. They took the body and left an artificial rose on his bed.
And then I helped my mother organize his funeral. He was a spiritual man, but not at all religious. There was no minister to call for assistance. We arranged to use the chapel in the funeral home. My stepbrothers and brother and I each committed to deliver a eulogy – four in words, one in classical music. But we felt we needed to wrap the service and burial in some kind of formality, so my mother and my future ex-husband and I dug our way through books and books of one thing we knew my stepfather had faith in – poetry.
We ended up selecting pieces by Wallace Stevens and George Santayana. But my mother had heard the most from my stepfather about his admiration for Imagist poet and New Jersey physician William Carlos Williams (also mentor to Allen Ginsberg). We pushed through volume after volume, looking for something of his that one of us could read. The first poem we found related to death or loss began:
the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
So that hardly seemed appropriate. Actually, we laughed at its total inappropriateness. Fresh grief can be like that – manic and grimly hysterical. Then there was another poem. It felt too raw at the time, so we didn’t read it either. Williams was left out of the funeral. But that other poem is still with me.
Last week, I completed training to be hospice volunteer for the organization that took such extraordinary care of all of us before and after my stepfather passed. We have had (I have had) several other losses since then, and none of those experiences have felt alike. The training made me think more deeply about all of the pressure valves people blow open and seal shut in dark times or mourning, the crazy emotional acrobatics and contortions that can lead to accepting — or never accepting — a loss. For some people, cracking a single emotion may take remarkable courage. Others (like me) may expectorate feelings with more persistence than we are usually able to muster to wipe down the kitchen counters.
I like Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins “I measure every grief…” because of her stark consideration of several ways that grief may manifest and her conclusion that its very existence is something that unites us all. Death, loss and everyone’s inevitable experience of them at some time bind us like quantum physics, the interconnectedness of Buddhist philosophy or Walt Whitman’s beautiful line from Leaves of Grass – “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
When someone dies after a long illness, particularly one that seems to strip away the person that you knew in pinpricks and bold strokes, it can take time to recover; time to begin to remember them well. My stepfather was an intellectual, an elitist, even, but a brilliant and loyal man. He inherited me as his very first daughter-like person when I was 19 and while I know I flummoxed him at first, we grew into a relationship that ended with the intimacy of hallucinations and dying.
And I have him to thank for the fact that I’ve read a lot more William Carlos Williams in the last two years than ever before.
I’ve always loved the rituals around Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day, because they give memories a chance to breathe within us. We can make offerings to the people we’ve lost, remember the parts of ourselves that they gave us.
I think my stepfather would have liked it if this poem had been read at his funeral. It would have been bold. But I think, rightly, that it might have been too raw for those who were grieving for him. So I make it as an offering to him, and anyone who needs permission to feel anything at all they need to feel, today:
By William Carlos Williams
I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.
See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ’s sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.
Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.
No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.
For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that’s no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I’d not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker’s understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!
Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
I think you are ready.
Seven sounds magical when you say it out loud: Seven. Declan is Seven. We can look at the Pleiades and assign a year of your life to each sister. Or one year to every day of the week. Or one to each note on the musical scale. Or to each color in the visible light spectrum. You are seven, my baby. You are everywhere.
And you are magical. You do magic tricks with cards and bags and handkerchiefs and coins. You practice and practice your sleight of hand and then perform for people who ooh and aah. You almost always want to share the secret of each trick, prompting your audiences to say things like “a magician should never reveal his secrets” (especially when your audiences include adults).
But you have a different idea, which goes a little something like this: Everything worth knowing is worth sharing. Truthfully, I can think of little that is more magical than the way you still constantly, enthusiastically learn and then share what you’ve learned, like a treasure hunter who enjoys the gems and fine metals he uncovers best when he can give them all away. Abracadabra.
And there is always more that you want to know. You come home from a day’s work of doing long multiplication at school and ask me how to multiply using Pi so that you can compute the circumference of a circle. I try to do it longhand with decimal points on paper only to find out from the calculator that I have no idea what I’m doing.
“That’s okay mom,” you say to me, patting me on the shoulder. “You’re just a little tired. You’ll figure it out after you think about it a while.”
I wear a meteorite on a necklace that you gave me for Valentine’s Day. It’s the ultimate reminder of my boy and his infinite love for the universe. You laugh when I interrogate it about what part of the galaxy it is from.
“It can’t be that far,” you tell me. “It has to be from this solar system. But who knows? Maybe as far as the Kuiper belt.”
You’ve always been kind-hearted. And lately it feels like kindness has become not only something you do, but something you have come to believe in. One day after school, you told me that a friend of yours had been crying, so you crouched down next to him and put your hand on his back. A teacher saw this and said “you are a very kind person, Declan.” You couldn’t wait to tell me that an adult had called you kind. It made you glow with pride.
Sometimes friends of mine see how often you smile in pictures and ask me “is he ever unhappy?” And certainly, you can be, and I try to give you the room to be, because unhappiness is an important thing to feel sometimes. But it is surprisingly rare for you. You’re so excited about the experience of being alive.
You love babies. You smile your face off whenever you’re around one. You touch them gently on the feet and look them in the eyes to make them laugh. You also love dogs. Sometimes you lie down next to Arrow to see things from his perspective. You think about what it must be like to be him.
Anyone who knows you and me knows that you are the love of my life. And for the time being, I am still yours. I’ve done a lot of crying in the past few months because I miss people who have died. You wipe the tears off of my face as you let me tell you something about why I loved whomever I am missing. Then you hug me so tight that it’s hard for me to stay sad. When I think about what a loving, perceptive son I have, all I can feel is grateful.
We talked in the car one night this spring, about all of the feelings that grief can bring, how those feelings aren’t always the most obvious ones.
“I know mom,” you told me from the back seat. “Anger can mask sadness.”
The last time you saw your nanny alive in March, you held her hand and her gaze so sweetly. “Good lookin’,” she said to you, examining your face. “You have beautiful blue eyes.”
When I was your age, I remember being irrationally afraid that my grandmother’s broken wrist might be contagious. You, not yet seven, knew more than a lot of adults about what death really looks like, and you stood there holding your nanny’s hand. I would have given you the space to be afraid. But you knew that she was dying and you stood there, smiling calmly and gently at her for minutes and minutes at a time, giving her such comfort and joy.
I hope that I can become more like you.
At the funeral, you wiped the tears off of your daddy’s face. And mine. You got to hug your beautiful half-sister for the very first time. You were surrounded by people who loved you. You were completely overwhelmed. Especially by the thought of a boy losing his mother, like your daddy and his brothers just did. That night you hugged me so hard I thought you might bruise my neck and you whispered I just can’t imagine not having you, mom.
A few mornings later, we walked into your classroom. A small rainbow was reflected on the ground. You scooped up the colorful light with your hands and rubbed it all over my face.
“Is that for good luck?” I asked.
“No, it’s to keep you safe,” you told me.
Declan, I am so far inside of your heart, it’s a wonder that you don’t hear my voice every time that it beats. I don’t take credit for your intelligence or your kindness – you arrived here with those things. But I see how loved you feel, how confident and secure you are, how much room you have to become yourself, and I know that I have something to do with that, which makes me proud.
It makes me cry, too. Really good tears. Big happiness is also important to feel sometimes. And you’ve given me a lot of that.
I woke up this morning and wrapped you up in my arms and said “happy birthday my sweet boy! You are seven!”
“I know. It’s so exciting,” you told me.
(Insert our secret greeting/goodbye here, including one kiss on your hand that goes to infinity.)
At the beginning of the year, I made the aspiration to read fewer Buddhist and self-help books. I bought and started Just Kids by Patti Smith, but I didn’t get very far. Life-changing things just kept happening. I needed my little daily meditations and other methods of head-clearing. I lacked the focus for much else. So I decided to wait on the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe until I could give it my full attention.
I’ve just been to a Catholic funeral mass for the woman who has been my mother-in-law for over 11 years. It brought up all of the sad feelings I’ve come to anticipate as well as some fragile new hope that I didn’t. Death, a dear friend said to me a few months ago, “can be so generous sometimes.”
This, after three non-religious memorials and a Baptist home-going since last August. On some days the grief is fathoms deep and I do stupid things, like watch “Game of Thrones” (not a good idea when your emotional constitution is weakened) or reach out to people that I know are far too self-involved to practice compassion (also not a good idea — even an exceptionally bad one — when your emotional constitution is weakened).
Other days I recognize stupid moves and emotional missteps for what they are: no big deal. Because I can mitigate any bad day or personal embarrassment with the reminder that nobody died and mean it (although I can’t seem to let “nobody died” leave my mouth without adding “yet,” just in case). I’m like that seemingly insensitive dad guy, shrugging off the horrible, embarrassing thing that happened to you at school because “it’s not like anybody died.” And honestly, on a day when nobody near or dear to you dies, I know with certainty that things could be worse.
For the first time in over a year and a half, I am not acquainted with anyone who is fighting an acute terminal illness (to my knowledge). It’s a weirdly liberating realization. And one I don’t want to be too superstitious to appreciate because things can always change a moment from this one.
So I’m reading. I’m reading a book about the history of cancer because four different cancers claimed four different people that I cared about in the last eight months. There is something comforting about recognizing just how fucking crazy the history of pathology and surgery and radiation really is, how erratic and accidental so many discoveries about cancer have been. There is also something empowering about realizing how many different ways our DNA can get broken, how we can temper the risks of that through some of our choices, but ultimately, like most things, it’s outside of our control.
I’m also reading about rock and roll and art. I came back to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. And damn if it doesn’t feel like self-help. Or Buddhism:
“The things I thought would happen didn’t. Things I never anticipated unfolded.”
It’s a line from Just Kids about the precipice of Smith’s career – the weeks, days, months before her destiny as a poet, playwright and rock goddess began to root.
Now, I go to meetings where people struggle and fight with themselves, sometimes for years, to just let go. To begin to realize that simply responding within the life you have can be so much more magical and rewarding than trying to force the life you think you want to have to happen; to get to “Things I never anticipated unfolded.”
Is that a platitude, or too simple-sounding? Maybe. But I am long since over dismissing things that are true or helpful simply because they aren’t clever enough. I think of all of the years that I gagged myself on cleverness when I could have been happier. There’s really no honor in suffering, especially when you have the choice to not suffer. Happier is better. Happier is more honorable.
Patti Smith grew into her superpowers by surrendering. She and Robert Mapplethorpe used to choose a record to listen to over and over again to let it create the tone of their evening for them. She let her mistakes lead her to the next place instead of withdrawing from the world because of them. She kept herself open to opportunities and took them as they came – like reading her poetry backed by Lenny Kaye’s guitar, which haphazardly landed them in a musical relationship that’s lasted for decades. Smith set out to be a poet, not a rock and roll icon, but the latter evolved because she let it. When she had her children, she let all of that slip away for a while to give herself to the experience being a mother. She seems to have had the inherent wisdom to live inside of the life she had instead of constantly pushing for a different one, as so many of us do.
Then an unfathomable series of deaths slowly brought her back to a public life. Her husband, her brother, her best friend and a dear band-mate all passed away in short order, all young and unexpectedly. But instead of letting it harden her, she surrendered to it. Here’s what she said in an interview with Shambala Sun about 16 years ago:
“I find that sorrow breaks the heart open, makes you more vulnerable. In some ways sorrow is a beautiful state. It can heighten one’s sense of humor. You can find strength and clarity in sorrow. Sorrow is a gift. You have to treasure it. The important thing is to honor it.”
It’s no wonder that when I saw her play live ten or eleven years ago it felt like a religious experience. She may be a bodhisattva.
Now she’s added both of her parents and more close friends and colleagues to the list of those she’s lost, but every time I hear her interviewed, she says something insanely hopeful, like “I promise if you listen, you will hear the dead speaking to you.” She shares stories about the ways that the dead now fill her with warmth, how they live within and speak through her as long as she remains open. I’m beginning to really understand this. I am. And it’s nothing I expected or thought I wanted to know.
Outside of the fact that we don’t know when, where or how we or our loved ones are going to die, death is not that mysterious. But there’s still plenty of mystery in rock and roll, in art, in people, in surrendering, in living.
Lately, when I’ve wanted to give myself a laugh in the dark manner that a surgeon’s granddaughter is wont to do, I listen to “People Who Died” by Jim Carroll. In 2009, Jim Carroll died, and Patti Smith began covering his song regularly in his honor, encouraging audience members to call out the names of their dead loved ones in the middle of the song.
Ironically (to me, anyway) this live performance was recorded the day after my 40th birthday, in 2010. The day my stepfather died, died. It is powerful. You should watch it.
It’s not that nobody died. It’s that you’re alive.
For another celebration of our delicate, beautiful mortality, click this:
The news was bad for dogs last week. Apparently, dragons hate them, so the new Chinese year is predicted to be a rough one for people like myself, born in the year of the metal canine. The year of the tiger shredded me to the bone, as the world’s largest predators are wont to do, and last year’s bunny wasn’t exactly cuddly, so threats from a dragon were not what I wanted to hear.
I generally don’t put much stock in horoscopes unless they are good and I happen to need something to believe in. Still… crappy predictions have a way at nagging at you. So I was grateful when I opened up Free Will Astrology a couple of days after the dragon commenced, in which Rob Brezny advised my other astrological self – the moonchild — to “go in quest of… a useful and beautiful blessing bequeathed to you by the departed spirit of someone you love or admire.”
I happen to be in possession of many useful blessings bequeathed to me by beloved and departed spirits, but lately, I’ve found myself forgetting them too easily and too often. The death toll of people I am connected to who have passed away in the last two years cranked up to 11 in January – some have been family, a couple were personal mentors, others have been friends, dear ones to my near and dear ones and acquaintances that I used to have warm conversations with out in the world.
Multiple funerals have a way of making the deaths that you hear about in passing – the ones that used to be abstract – more vivid. I hadn’t been keeping count, but when the number jumped from eight to ten during the same week in October, it started to feel enormous and it rarely let up since. I let the number consume me, paralyzing me like the sitting ghost, slowly eclipsing the memories of the very individuals I miss.
When grief takes up residence in your life, it’s a cunning shape-shifter. Once its immediate deep fog, harsh lights and wild cactus needles retreat, life starts to become less ouchy. Then it reemerges in sudden fits and vibrations. It’s in the handwritten note you had forgotten about and find under the front seat of the car; in the smell of an old bottle of Jean Naté body splash; in hearing the corny joke that no one else would laugh at with you except the person you can’t share it with anymore.
But the latter is also the better part of grief. You might get caught crying while holding a bottle of Maraschino cherries at the supermarket because Shirley Temples make you think of big dinners with now-dead relatives, wearing wide lapels and odd-shaped sideburns without a trace of irony. But that glass urn of fruit and disgusting red dye also tells you that those people are still with you, making funny faces at your seven-year-old self. They are your emotional DNA.
The number ten, closely followed by eleven, cut me off from that better part of grief. I started filling myself with sad, self-involved stories. I pulled the covers over my face because I’m 41, not 81, and since my life doesn’t resemble Jim Carroll’s, I felt there should be no way I know that many dead people. I told myself that the universe doesn’t want me to be happy, doesn’t want to let me feel any of the lightness that I’m longing for. I obsessed over things that I thought could yank me into some kind of joy, or at least some strong feelings that were not grief.
On the day I read the horoscope that suggested I quest for my blessings, I knew where I could go. A spiritual mentor of mine died last summer, but the support group she ran for families of addicts and alcoholics did not. I arrived late, but my entrance invited silent warmth from several familiar faces that I’ve grown to love.
The only chair open was in the spot where I best remember her looking upon everyone in the room, telling it like it was. I sat down in the lap of her memory and felt what it was like when she taught me that the tighter you throw your arms around the things that you imagine will make you happy, the more likely you are to strangle them in the process. And the more likely you are to overlook better things out there for you – the things you never imagined. The other people in the room remembered more lessons, some that I knew, and others that I didn’t and was glad to hear. Our mentor was with us, exceptionally present, stronger and more beautiful as we sat in the space she carved out for us together.
A lot of the best things in the world are plentiful, a friend reminded me recently. Water. Oxygen. Life… from the endless microbial stuff we can’t see to dolphins to the people that irritate us in traffic. And death.
“Death is everywhere. There’s an awful lot of it in the universe,” she said. “So there must be a lot of good reasons for it.”
Death inhabits us just like life does. Our cells prove it over and over every second. I don’t want to run from big numbers anymore. I want to swallow them, let these dead people camp out under my skin, help me with the living part. Today I want to love my son with the force and acceptance my aunt had for her two boys. I want to practice the ease and gentleness three men I used to talk to out in the world always had with people in social situations, in a way I’ve never been good at, but always admired. I want to pass on the kindness and guidance to others that two strong women so generously gave to me.
I don’t sleep so well. Every other night, I find myself awake at odd hours to warm a mug of milk, stretch my hips or play racquetball with difficult thoughts to try and find my way back into slumber. Sometimes I succeed easily and wake up refreshed, other times it’s an all-night battle.
My son hates to be late to school. He got that from me. He also hates being in certain parts of the house alone.
I was dragging the other morning after a particularly rough night. He was dressed and ready for breakfast, fully aware that I still had his lunch to pack. And he was impatient.
“Mom…. MOM,” he repeated insistently, agitating the carpet with his booted feet.
“I know I’m slow this morning, but nagging me isn’t going to help me go any faster,” I snapped.
I watched the tone of my voice sting his sweet six-year-old cheeks. His nose twitched, his lip quivered and his eyes welled up. One fat tear began to roll out of his eye.
I had him in my arms before it fell. I picked him up, wrangled his legs around my waist and held him close.
“That’s the last thing I wanted to do,” I whispered to him, flashing on images of him being at school, doubting even for a moment that I love him absolutely; picking apart my coldness in therapy sessions as an adult.
“I didn’t mean to sound so mean. It had nothing to do with you,” I said. “Mommy is very tired and not feeling good. Usually when people sound mad or mean it’s because they feel bad, not because of anything you did. Do you understand that?”
His face was snuggled into my neck, moist and warm. I felt him nod.
“It makes me cry that I made you cry,” I whispered. “I am sorry.”
I held him there for several minutes, rocking his body back and forth. He stayed close, patting my hair. He calmed down much sooner than I did.
A dragonfly hovered strangely at eye-level outside my car window in August. I thought it must mean that my friend Joan was dead.
I was stopped at a red light. The dragonfly seemed to hang there for tens of seconds, inches from my face. Then it circled the car twice, whirling a Monarch butterfly in its tailwind over the hood as it swooped away and headed toward the river.
My son was with his father overnight — a new freedom that, for me, felt more like purposelessness. I had a bag of takeout food and no one to eat it with, no little boy to trade grins with and listen to, no one to wrap my arms around. I looked north, where Joan lay unconscious at a hospice facility. I knew that her daughter was at her side, and that she wanted them to remain undisturbed.
I turned the car in that direction anyway, remembering the spacious rooms where my stepfather had stayed for a few days a little over one year before, the doors that opened to a courtyard so they could wheel the dying outside to soothe them with fresh air. I remembered the kindnesses of the nurses, the aide, the social worker and the spiritual counselor who came to our home; the suspended state that we lived in for two and half months as we watched him die.
It took a couple of weeks for him to let go of living, like watching an old flashlight dimming with episodic flickers of panicky light. We lived as though we were deep underwater, even after the day I saw the final dullness of his eyes, the slack of his jaw and heard myself say, after pressing my hand over his rough rib cage and in search of the faint heart beat that had been there an hour earlier, “I think he really is dead now, mom.”
Joan was the person who regularly pulled me to the surface during that time. She had warmth, a wisdom that sprang from her own intimate relationship with grief and a genuine faith. She gave these enveloping hugs and called everybody she loved familial names like baby, sweetheart, son and daughter. She had a way of saying exactly what I needed to hear, a way of helping me see that I could let go of the things I couldn’t control and sleep through the night after all.
As she moved toward her final stages, I had been out of town. She had already been in that unconscious, transitional state between life and death for days when I returned. I dropped off a letter for her and a note to her daughter the day before. “You are infinite,” I had said. Her generosity multiplied through her dozens of spiritual babies, sweethearts, sons and daughters in a way that gave her a kind of immortality. We who were loved by her reflected what she gave us with richness and brilliance, so it seemed perfectly normal to think that a dragonfly could be Joan.
I slowed down momentarily to look at the stately, house-like hospice structure as I drove past. “Was that you?” I said out loud. “Was it you, Joan?”
I didn’t stop. I headed to a park with a pond that was always bursting with dragonflies. I slathered on bug spray, then watched them skim the water, some stick-thin, some chunkier like elongated bumblebees, all iridescent, all reflecting light.
I was too apprehensive to eat anything but a few bites of watermelon. A little girl, maybe two or three years old, sidled up to me and tried to take my car keys. I can’t remember her face at all, but I do remember thinking that she was beautiful. She touched the wooden mala beads that I had been praying with as she said hello, then went for the keys again. I tried to hide them. Her grandfather distracted her by suggesting they walk over to look at the ducks. They were actually geese, but it worked. My keys were safe.
I thumbed through om mani padme hum on my mala a third time, sending it to Joan as the sun set. Then I took myself to a coffee shop, where I sat and wrote with a pen in my hand and wished I could unknot the waiting feeling in my stomach. I watched all kinds of people on the street outside as they headed places, looking purposeful. I imagined having that kind of anticipation again – the kind you feel when you are on your way somewhere, looking forward, open to all of the possibilities.
I just returned from a beautiful memorial service in Loveland, Ohio, for my dear friend and colleague, Linda Sanders-Wells. Everyone there was invited to share their experiences of her. This was my contribution:
I first met Linda when she was brought to the helm of the storytelling project at KnowledgeWorks in 2006. (I was the Columbus storyteller.) Back then, we had these wonderful conferences, usually in Columbus, where the team of writers from all over the state was able to come together, share observations form the field and critique one another’s work.
Linda was lovingly tough as an editor. I remember one time when I turned in a draft to her and she came back at me with a list of questions and critiques, which ended with the comment “you keep slipping into the passive voice. That’s actually making me kind of angry.”
When I asked her why or how that could actually make her mad, she told me “you know the people you are writing about. You have developed strong relationships here and you when you talk about them it is clear you are passionate about the issues they face. The passive voice makes you sound afraid and you have no reason to be afraid.”
I have been a freelance writer and editor for a long time, which tends to be a very isolating way to work. I can’t tell you what a gift it was to have Linda tell me that she was angry with me, not because revisions are inconvenient, but because she sensed through my writing that I was feeling serious self-doubt. She believed in me, and she was indignant that I didn’t believe in myself as well. She wanted a good product, but more importantly, she wanted me to share her confidence in my abilities as a writer. What a loving way to be an editor, and a friend.
When we first met, my son Declan was still a brand-new person, and I would usually bring him along to the dinners we would all have together at our Columbus storytelling conferences. When you carry around a baby in a sling and are all dewy-eyed about being a new mom, a lot of parents you encounter out the world like to try and disillusion you with comments like “yes, well, he’s cute now, but just wait until he’s a teenager.”
I remember Linda leaning over to me after hearing one of these comments in a restaurant and saying “I don’t know why people say those things all the time. My daughter is a ‘tween and I don’t feel any less awed by being her parent now than I did when she was a baby. If anything, she just becomes more interesting and complicated and beautiful as she unfolds into her own person. There’s nothing painful about it – it’s an honor to witness.”
(There were a lot of things that Linda might have been reluctant to share about herself, but her deep love for her daughter Abbie, partner Howard and their community of friends was never one of them.)
Throughout the friendship Linda and I were able to keep alive through this modern age of emails and blogging and Facebook, she constantly gave me permission and encouragement to be as sentimental and celebratory about the experience of being a mom as I felt. I marveled publicly at my son and the whole experience of mothering on my personal blog, which she would read, then leave me comments or send me emails that pleaded with me to remain unselfconscious about the fact that I love my son and the person he has helped me to become. I plan to keep her picture up in my house and tell Declan about this unusual 21st century relationship, because I feel that having her as my friend actually made me a better mom.
Just this past August, another friend of mine — a woman in Columbus who I would describe as one of the great spiritual teachers of my life — passed away. When it happened, Linda sent me a note that said, simply, “My heart is with you. I’m so sorry about Joan, but glad you were able to have known her.”
In the last couple of weeks, I have found myself turning to that same thought about Linda. Even as a person who rarely got to see her face-to-face, I know that I am going to miss her dearly.
But I imagine her essential kindness and compassion as this warm glow in my heart. It is someplace I can turn whenever I lose confidence in my writing, start to get worried that celebrating my son looks too much like bragging, or if, for any reason, I am just not taking it very easy on myself.
I am deeply sorry Linda is gone. I am going to miss her terribly. I can’t even imagine the feelings of loss those nearer to her must feel. But I am so glad, and so grateful that I was able to have known her.
So I took the better part of a year to complete the 12 Steps (for codependents).
I thought finishing them would crack my life wide open.
There were days when it did. My hope was enormous. My good feelings became at least as intense and vivid as my bad ones, and they rushed right in. I felt like everything was about to start fresh – new work, a new single mom’s life, a windfall of new sources of inspiration.
But my life didn’t exactly crack wide open.
The friend that walked me through the 12 steps died. I felt myself stall. I grieved for her. I grieved for the person I thought I was supposed to be at 41 (again). I waited for the school year to start. I fretted when it did, inflating myself into human lifeboat for my son’s first grade transition. Meanwhile, several other people I care about have continued to deal with real things, like life-threatening illnesses and debilitating depression. I felt like I had no business worrying about the state of my ordinary things while extraordinarily bad things happened to others. Other times I felt like my ordinary things are all I should be worrying about, because I’m right here and for now, I am breathing. If the last year or two have taught me nothing else, it’s that being here and breathing are nothing to take for granted.
I joked a lot with people over the last year that I had “a high-maintenance emotional hygiene regimen.” I read my meditation books. I went to my step study. I went to Al-Anon meetings. I started meditating more. I even built myself a better, healthier body. I’m strong enough to hug you hard and punch you even harder. (Cue Lifetime Channel for Women movie montage video with inspirational music.) Give me the chance and I will. (Hug you, I mean. I’m not all that punchy.)
I thought I would write about shifts and struggles and steps and changes here more often, but I’ve been processing a lot of it out in the world, where I’ve grown much better at touching people, looking them in the eye when I tell them that I love them or what they mean to me. A few of those relationships are a direct or indirect result of this place, or have been deepened by things I’ve shared here, so I’m grateful to it.
A friend asked me if all this work has actually made me happier a few weeks ago. The answer didn’t come to me until a day or two later.
“I used to think happiness was something I might be able to figure out how to sustain, but I realize that’s not possible” I told him. “Now, when I’m unhappy, I can see that I have so many more routes back to happiness than I used to. It’s not as scary to be unhappy anymore.”
My life has cracked wide open. It’s just not what I expected, thank goodness.