Tag Archives: grief mapping

Are you okay?

“People help you, or you help them, and when we offer and receive help, we take in each other.
And then we are saved.”
– Anne Lamott

I sat alone in my car at a red light on a busy east side street a few weeks ago.

Feeling tired, I dropped my face into my hands and rested there for several seconds. When I looked back up, there was still a red light and a minivan next to me with a man with a blonde combover in the driver’s seat. He was aggressively waving his arms at me.

When he saw he had my attention, he mouthed the words “Are you okay?” with a point of his index finger and the universal OK sign, followed with a big mime-like raise of his eyebrows.

I think I looked at him dully for about a second before smiling a little and nodding in a way that was probably also more Marcel Marceau than natural human. I might have even given him a thumbs-up sign.  As he nodded back, smiled and pulled away, I felt strangely grateful for his concern. His out-of-nowhere, stoplight, blue minivan concern for some woman in an old Toyota resting her face in her hands.

The last three years have taught me more than I ever expected to know about the kindness of strangers — not to mention other people I might have been acquainted with, but had no way of knowing I could trust. At some point, when things were oppressively difficult in my life, I just started answering the question “how are you?” honestly all the time. I was not okay. I was hanging out with death and deadly illnesses and divorce and the effects of others’ addictions while trying my best to be a halfway decent mom.

But when I told people some piece of that information, I was amazed to find that I wasn’t exposed or embarrassed or humiliated. I was helped and encouraged. They held up a mirror and let me know that I didn’t appear to be as wounded as I felt. They told me I was a good mother or a good person. They rose to meet my honesty with their own. Sometimes they told me things that were braver than I ever imagined, making my own truths less scary and alien. I was saved. Over and over, I was given faith and hope in the primordial goodness of people.

As I made my way home from the minivan man, I drove past the Grill and Skillet – the dictionary definition of a greasy spoon. And I remembered another time in the spring of 2010, when someone asked me if I was okay on a day when I definitely was not.

“Let me take you for a coffee,” she said.

She was a woman of few means, but she was wealthy and generous with wisdom, and she liked to make a big production of treating people to the delights she could afford. She bought me that coffee and some toast at the Grill & Skillet, while she munched on four pieces of bacon.

“I’m skipping all the ordinary calories and just going straight for the devil today,” she told me. Then, eyeballing my jailhouse snack, “You’re a cheap date. Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

All I genuinely wanted was some of peacefulness she seemed to possess, her natural ability to be true to herself. I don’t remember what her exact words were to me that day, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably something like “you need to think about acceptance, baby, about accepting things as they are. It will free you.”

Every time I spent a few moments with her, I could feel a deep turning in my life, away from self-created obstacles and emotional storms.

And I remember watching her, usually moving slowly because of a tumor in her leg, dragging a heavy, quilted bag of self-help and meditation books and paper worksheets on things like identifying emotions that she felt would be useful to others. If you were in need, she would probably make you wait a little while. She might have to take care of something for herself first, like getting a drink of water or a snack – often something that seemed quite trivial compared to the desperately catastrophic things you were feeling. But then she would turn towards you, become present with you, and you were enveloped in the safety of her wisdom, usually ending with a hug that was equally, spectacularly enveloping. There was no telling whether you would be lifted for moments or days – that would depend on you – but you would be lifted.

Best of all, you would witness the grace she received for herself by helping you. As she sensed you lightening, she would lean back and smile. “I have an affinity for people like you,” she would say. “We have experienced the same kinds of pain, so know that I mean it when I tell you that I love you and I love to be of service to you.”

You were not a burden. Your willingness to share and trust actually gave her something too. Not only had you unburdened yourself to someone safe, you had been useful to that person.

After the Newtown killings and the apocalypse that wasn’t, Facebook, my email, phone calls and friends on the street have made me feel like we’re becoming a nation of blue minivan combover men and toast-buying women. “Are you okay?” we ask each other in the wake of fallen children, heroic educators and jokes about the world’s demise. Because no matter how much news fasting, meditation or other exercise in equanimity that you practice, there’s little or no getting around feeling a tragedy like this one, feeling the insanity of any human being treating the world like there is no tomorrow.

I keep returning to the notion that we are never as helpless as we think. Two weekends ago, I heard a wise teacher say “Love and compassion are never in vain. They are never useless. They are never powerless.”

And that’s the lesson from my friend that has remained with me most powerfully, a year and a half after her passing. (The lesson that the minivan man and a drive down Main Street brought back to my attention.) She showed me that when you take good, consistent care of yourself, helping or caring for others is not only not a burden, it’s a blessing.  You take that sip of water first. You say “I’ll call you back after I take a nap.” You eat a sandwich. You swim or meditate or pray or spend time petting your dog. You do what it takes to make sure your center is as strong and balanced as it can be today.

Then you walk toward that next person you see hurting, preferably without any expectation that they are even ready or willing to accept anything you have to offer.

“What can I do to help you?” you ask.

If the answer is “nothing,” you accept that.

If the answer is something you consider, then realize that you can’t give them, you tell them that directly.

But there is often something you can do. Sometimes just the question “what  can I do to help you?” is a greater gift than you might imagine. It may be days, weeks or years before you realize that you actually helped someone. You may never know you helped them.

You do it anyway. And you are saved.

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Tract for the Day of the Dead

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:

He’s dead

the dog won’t have to
sleep on his potatoes
any more to keep them
from freezing

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
of artists—
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—
or what?
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
my townspeople—
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.
Go now
I think you are ready.


I remember you, Stephen.


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Hope & death & Patti Smith

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:

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I am dead people

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.

Look out death, we’re starting something new.

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Saturday night dragonfly

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.

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For Linda

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.

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Impermanent impermanence

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.


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Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

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Washing away

I was all set to do laundry on New Year’s Day. The baskets were loaded, the darks picked clean of stray white socks. Then I happened upon the superstition that if you do the wash on the first of the year, you may “wash away a loved one” in the process. I slow-cooked my pork and sauerkraut and waited for January 2.

Five people I knew passed in 2010. One man held me as a baby. One death ushered me into 40. Three more friends, acquaintances, members of my extended community, were gone in a grim flipbook of months or moments.

I make weekly visits to a woman who put her hand over my heart and lifted me last year, who has comforted me with Kleenex and new community and wise words like “go home and read everything you can about acceptance.” Now she is on a twisting journey through metastasized stage four pancreatic cancer and even when I see her under the auspices of showing up to help her, it’s me who gets the help.

I take her food stamp card out to pick up sockeye salmon, orange juice and grits. I walk her granddaughter into a doctor’s office where I am met with a raft of love and prayers and good wishes to take back to the little apartment she so loves because it is surrounded by trees and the walls are increasingly papered with get well cards. I learn how little a person can have and still give and give and light up the lives of other people. I relearn the importance of waking up early, holding my son’s face in my hands and telling him how grateful I am that his face is the first one I laid eyes on in 2011. As much as I want to shed the chaos and pain of the past year’s trail of loss, I also want to stay here, present in what it’s given me, for as long as I am.

I’m learning more than I ever imagined at my age about many ways that people get sick. About many ways that people die. About Jedi nutrition tricks, magical thinking and cold, dark, depressed spaces. I’m stretched thin along the hair’s distance between life and death, between health and a hard diagnosis.

In the days before 2010 expired, I found out there are other people I care about who are now doing their own dances with cancer. After learning her own fate, one gave me a strong symbol of her faith for Christmas, a bit of protection, a message that in the midst of fracturing family, certain things are not lost.  I’m wondering if it’s time to lose a few inches of hair again and offer it to cancer.

I couldn’t do the laundry on New Year’s Day. But not exactly because I am afraid of losing another person. I know that I will, and whether that happens in 2011 or 2021 is not in my hands. But there is not one thing, not one person, not one stain from the experiences of this (or any) tour around the sun that I want to see cleansed from my life.

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Under the Whale

I tempted fate when I was seven.

I looked up at the life-sized replica of a blue whale, diving toward the ground in the Hall of Ocean Life in the American Museum of Natural History. I couldn’t find a logical reason for it to hang there securely, touching the ceiling with only a small portion of its spine. I was certain that if I ventured beneath the lines of its long, wide belly it would fall and I’d be crushed.

But I inched toward it, stretched my leg outward and planted one foot in the line of mortal danger before pulling it right back out again. I filled my lungs with air, took a full step in and dashed back out like my foot was on fire. Then I steeled myself and went under again, maybe two or three steps before my hasty retreat. Finally I held my breath, sprinted beneath the whale’s most daunting section and stood there, not blinking, for the length of a heartbeat.

I can remember doing this a few times as a child on weekend visits to Manhattan. Once I’d mustered the courage to gaze straight up into the metric ton of fiberglass whale jowls, my work there was done. I’d found the courage to face and survive my fabricated deathtrap scenario. I was ready to explore the open sea. Or the third grade.

In my twenties, I bought a big postcard of the AMNH whale on a trip back east to pin to a bulletin board that hung above my desk. A timid alternative weekly reporter who sometimes had to tackle a governor for comment or interview an ex-Neo Nazi, there were many days when I felt myself reliving that ritual. I’d stick my toe into that civic event, linger on the side, then bolt right up to that politician and breathlessly ask my hard question. Although, truth be told, I think George Voinovich reminded me more of a woodchuck than a majestic whale when I stared into his jowls.

A coworker puzzled over the postcard once when he stopped to talk to me. I explained my childhood ritual, and said venturing under the whale seemed like life in our struggling medium. He laughed appreciatively, and began whooping “living under the whale!” over my cubicle wall at me whenever he passed by. This would be, we joked during smoke breaks, the name of my memoir one day.

I’ve faced a few falling whales since I was seven, and not all of them have been a product of my imagination. This year, I feel like I might as well get a 100-foot backpack and carry the thing around. That’s just the kind of year it’s been — relentless in its bad news and losses and lessons. 2010 has some kind of point to make.

But the days of immediate stress and crisis are, in some ways easier than the days you spend in their wake. Still tired, you stand on the perimeter of the room, deciding how, or whether you should even try to face your personal boogeymammal. You start thinking about which screws you loosened in your own life that helped things fall apart. Suddenly the Hall of Ocean Life is the last place you want to visit.

Yesterday I met a friend for coffee and we reminded each other of a piece of advice we’d both been given by our wiser friends: Sometimes you have to let yourself mourn the life you were expecting, the life thought you deserved, in order to move on.  In some ways, I feel like I’ve already been doing that for a while, but I’ve signed a one-year commitment to an Al-Anon 12 Step group to keep pushing through that process to a new place.

I used to think the steps were something only alcoholics do, but I no longer see it as a chore or a burden. It’s an unburdening. I feel so lucky that this opportunity to try and build a brick house beneath the whale has come to me.

I don’t know how much more I will say directly about that process here – maybe nothing, maybe a ton – but it felt important to at least say it once. Today would have been my 10th wedding anniversary, an occasion to celebrate under different circumstances. Writing this – putting that first toe back out into the line of mortal peril – is how I’m handling that.

I took my son to the AMNH this summer, where we made it a point to venture into the Hall of Ocean Life, even though he would have happily spent the entire visit without leaving its Rose Center for Earth and Space. I told him about my childhood fears. He stood under all 96 feet of whale, looking up and said “this doesn’t scare me, mom.”  I thought about being hurt, but instead I said “I’m glad. I’m not scared of it anymore either.”

He honored me by buying a plush version of the whale as the emblem of the place he loved the most in New York City.

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