Keeping the Beast at Bay

My friend Bridget has a mentor who says, “Being a person is hard.”  That seems truer the older I get. It takes rather more to just live one’s life than we ever understood in the early years and occasionally it feels like just too much to bear. And you can be sure if you are feeling that way so is nearly everyone you know. At church we pray in a circle either silently or out loud and I was surprised last week to hear the matriarch of a lovely, perfect-seeming family speak up asking God to help struggling family members. It seems everyone is going through something themselves or worried about the struggles of someone they love.

For me right now that means spending a lot of time figuring out why a break up from a man who very clearly was not right for me has left me so broken. The thing about removing something from the landscape of your life is that it creates space. This can be both good and bad. The space can allow other good things to come in and fill it up, but it can also just sit there being all space-like and empty. And empty space is not really my strong suit.

I have been studying meditation, which is to say trying very hard to get my busy brain and body to just STOP occasionally and be still for, say, 15 solid minutes, for the past 10 years. It was only when I went on retreat in Washington state last year that I had a mini-breakthrough and realized that I could, in fact, access a quiet and still place within me when I needed to. Also, that it was probably a very good idea to do so regularly, whether I actually WANTED to or not. And since then I have tried much harder to get myself on the cushion, although there are many days that “I’m too busy now I’ll do it right after______” wins out.

At the meditation retreat the leader told a story about being very low at one point and calling out “help!” and then laughing at herself and saying, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” To me the answer there was obvious; she was talking to God or the universe or the energy field or whatever she accepts as her higher power, some force outside of herself that provides comfort and help and guidance. But she is a Buddhist nun and does not believe in a higher power per se. She believes that everything we need exists right within us and all we need to do is access it, provide the space so the answers, the comfort, the helpful idea will emerge.

I have a book club friend who refers to herself as a “cafeteria Catholic”. No offense, but really what other kind could you BE?! There is so much clap trap, so much guilt-producing, you are pond scum stuff running around in Catholicism that you have to question the sanity of anyone who drinks the entire glass of Kool-Aid. So Liz goes through the line and selects the parts that she can live with: God—for sure, Jesus-yup, 10 commandments—probably, sex only to procreate—uh NO!, women as second-class church citizens—definitely not.

Well I am a cafeteria interfaith believer. I believe there is one God, that He is all about love, that he created us and wants the very best for us, but loves us enough to let us live our crazy little lives and mess up all over the place. Alyssa asked last night if I picture some “old man in the sky” and of course I do. I can’t help it. The image of God that resonates with me the most is that of loving parent and so I picture him in the image of a super kind dad, someplace between Fred Rogers and Ben Cartwright from Bonanza with a sprinkling of Robert Young from “Father Knows Best” and Bill Cosby before all the dirt came out. I like knowing he’s there. I like thinking he is so big he can watch out for me and the other 3 billion people here and all the ETs on other planets and galaxies too. And I believe he sent Jesus in a sincere but only marginally successful attempt to show us how to be humans. But I also love the meditation aspect of Buddhism and the moving meditation aspect of yoga. And I love the rituals and tribal affiliation of Judaism and, living where I do, have often longed to be part of all that. Most of all I believe that we are all worshiping, longing for, believing in the same God and that it doesn’t matter AT ALL how we get to him or her or it. There are people in my world, people I love very much, who simply cannot accept the concept of God. I respect their right to believe as they wish, but it does make my heart ache a bit to think of them living their lives without the comfort of knowing that at some point you really can just lay your troubles down and ask someone else to carry them for a while, so you can rest. Because doing that may get you through some storms. And life will send storms. That’s a given.

I nearly did a jig when a recent Sunday New York Times contained an article by an expert in happiness who debunked the whole “going inward” thing as the answer. She basically said meditation was great and had many health benefits, but that the real path to happiness consisted of having other people in your life. Interpersonal relationships have time and time again been shown in research studies to be the key to a happy, rewarding and longer life. Some people find that through work, others through volunteering and a few lucky ones through marriage and family life, but wherever you find them we all need PEOPLE. Cue the Barbara Streisand song.

So as I sit in my little post-break up funk, I am embarrassed to realize that I don’t miss John much at all. In fact, it is a relief to stop trying so hard to get the love and affection and attention from him that I craved. It is a relief to not have to rearrange my face upon every meeting with him so as not to look disappointed at how indifferent he seemed to my presence. It is a relief to spend time in my cozy wee house in front of the fire with a good book instead of in a Barco-lounger in his cold dark basement watching golf on TV. What I miss is having SOMEONE, feeling connected (however loosely) to someone who cares about the minutiae of your day, who might want to go to a movie Saturday night, who might hang around long enough to wipe off the drool when you get really old. But those are not sufficient reasons to make a life with the wrong partner. And while I consider the possibility of still perhaps finding the right one, I am taking comfort in the following:

  1. God. I know he exists. I know he loves me. I know I am never alone because he is always with me.
  2. Heaven. It may be stupid and childlike, but I have always believed in heaven and after visiting the psychic and hearing directly from my departed relatives I am more convinced than ever. I must be honest and say that there are days when I would rather be there than here because it sounds pretty great and Tom and my parents and some friends I love are already there making me a Welcome to Heaven sign, but I still have things to learn and some work to do before I go so for now I will just take comfort in knowing it is there waiting. And feeling the ongoing love of my personal angels, the people I hold so dear, a love that transcends time and space and death is a beautiful, comforting thing.
  3. Quiet. We live in a noisy world. A single friend just confessed that turning off the TV at night is the hardest part of her day because she relies on it for company. I ditched TV 5 years ago and was only this month tempted to get it back, so I could fill a couple empty mornings with Kelly and Ryan. But I know better. I know that if I can just embrace the quiet, spend time reading and writing and meditating, some clarity will break through. This would not happen while listening to celebrity interviews.
  4. Outreach. My mom always said the best way to beat your own blues was to do something nice for someone else. I now wonder if she might have been deeply depressed because she seemed to ALWAYS be doing something nice for someone else. I have set out to try to do one small thing every day that is not about me. Send a card to someone, drop off surprise flowers, take a hike with a sad friend, bring dinner to a neighbor having a health crisis, offer rides to another in the same boat. And I am pondering ways I can spend one of my free mornings volunteering with the homeless or refugees or kids—not sure exactly what yet, but something that takes me out of my own life and makes me appreciate it all at once.
  5. People. I don’t always like them, but I need them. I seem a little standoffish so most contact has to be self-generated, but I‘m ok with that. My book club is coming here next week, I offered to host poetry circle in December, I agreed to go to a meditation half day with a friend on Saturday. I am trying to be sure I am out in the world in some way every day—teaching, playing pickleball, meeting friends for lunch or coffee, going to church and staying in closer touch with my dearest loved ones who sometimes get neglected when life is full and rosy. An adult piano student made my day when she told me that coming to my house for her lesson was the highlight of her week. If I can really do that for someone just by teaching them to play the piano I am glad. And from the looks on the faces of the toddler moms when I explained that we would be on hiatus from music class until January, I know that they are getting something important out of those classes too—mostly a chance to get out of the house and commune with other moms, but I am so happy to be able to provide that connection, a respite from the tedium of being housebound with tiny people. And I have joined a Master Mind group sponsored by the piano method I teach where 10 of us basically listen to our individual challenges in teaching and life and help keep each other accountable to implement the changes we know will help. They are strangers, but exceptionally cool ones and being in their presence (even via Skype) always makes me feel better.

 

  1. Music. I get to spend my working hours with it, but that is different than having a personal connection. Today I found a list of 30 songs people on the website The Mighty say help them in low periods. Most of them were too loud and rocky for me, but I found a couple winners and downloaded them in my new Apple Music account. I am dragged kicking and screaming into all technological advances, but this thing is the bomb and my iPhone speakers are so good that listening to songs just on my phone works fine. And I have started spending more time at the piano, practicing old songs, learning some new ones and noodling around on compositions.

 

  1. Creativity. I am only now fully embracing the fact that I need to create stuff in order to be happy. It doesn’t much matter what it is. This week I made my second batch of waxed paper leaf collages because I could not resist the amazing leaves I passed on my walk. And a couple weeks ago I dug out the water colors because my stand of coleus was crying out to be painted! And there is poetry and blogging and composing ditties on piano and ukulele. All of those feed my soul and it deserves a little nourishment, even in sad times. Especially in sad times!

 

  1. Hope. A therapist once told me that what Franny needed most from me at a low point in her life was hope. She needed me to believe and clearly communicate that she would get better, that the dark days would pass, and she would find a bright and happy future. I told her I didn’t really have any hope to spare and she said, “Find some.” After John and I broke up I told a friend that I was now resigned to dying alone in a snow drift up north. She immediately squashed that idea with her own image of my future– meeting some great musician guy at the music studio her husband is planning to open. This quick exchange allowed me to reset my crystal ball, to inch the needle from despair toward hope. That’s something we can all do for others. Help them see past the fog and gloom to the sunshine just ahead. The greatest words ever spoken might be, “this too shall pass” because they are so true. This means that both the highs and lows are temporary, but that’s ok for it is what makes life so full and rich and interesting. You never really know what’s coming next.

 

So bring it on, life. I will cry a little more in my beer, but then will be about the business of living, doing the best I can to craft a life that leaves the world an inch or two better than when I interrupted my family’s viewing of a football game one Saturday in October 1954 by being born. I’m an inveterate planner, but I get that I’m not really in control. It will be fun to see what’s around the corner and down the road. We have to give two-word check-ins at the start of our Master Mind calls. Today mine would be SCARED and EXCITED.

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Have an Average Day

My youngest daughter is a high school senior and struggling to juggle college applications, difficult classes at school, a part-time job and outside activities. I would not change places with her for all the tea in China despite the air of excitement and anticipation I get to experience vicariously. What I know, and she can’t yet quite see, is that she is at the cusp of her real life, the part where you go off on your own, get to reinvent yourself into any image you choose, sort through all the morals and ideals of your upbringing, hold fast to the things that still speak to you and chuck the rest.

Just last night at book club a woman was bemoaning the fact that her college age child is done with coming home and wanting very much to step straight into his new life, many miles away. She is deeply wounded by this and what I wanted to say, but didn’t, was “well done”, you have done the job of parenting perfectly. You have raised a confident, capable, independent human being who is now leaving the nest. All is as it should be. Relax into the new reality and don’t try for a minute to hold him back or guilt him into staying close.

I am already certain that this will be my exact fate. Alyssa will leave for college in nine extremely short months and never look back. This is both who she is naturally and the universe’s comeuppance to me for doing that very thing to my own parents. I was so keen to start my life over I could taste it. I could not wait to meet new people and see new things.  I even dropped the second half of my childhood name which I had always hated.  My parents suddenly seemed hopelessly stupid and old-fashioned and I wanted to distance myself. This is all very normal and predictable and, as usually happens, temporary. Round about the time you have kids of your own, your parents suddenly look like geniuses. (“How did they DO it? They were brilliant, energetic, loving. How lucky I was!”) But it will be quite a few years before my children pass into this phase of retroactive appreciation and in the mean while there are challenges to get through.

I laughed out loud the other day at breakfast when Alyssa told me she intended to have an average day. She said it was the best she could hope for in these stressful times, and so she was setting that as her goal. A good day was far too much to hope for and a bad day was to be avoided at all costs, so she would just aim for average. I rather like the idea. We are all so hell-bent on great and fantastic and awesome that just ok no longer seems enough. I was thrilled as a new parent to receive a book titled The Good Enough Parent. I remember little of the content but still take comfort in the title alone.  It reminds me of the doctor’s oath (I think) to “First, do no harm.” We have all, of course, done unintentional harm to our children just by being their parents and messing up along the way in our humanness. But having the goal to do the best we can, avoid damaging their little psyches as much as possible and being content with a big dose of good enough seems extremely wise and attainable.

I think I can use this approach in my own life too. The ship sailed long ago on the life I intended to have, the movie I pictured in my head where I was in a stable, loving long term marriage, had happy, healthy children and enough financial success from meaningful employment not to have to worry. And although I have done better than I might have imagined at editing and re-editing that original movie to fit new realities, it still never seems to quite work out as planned. What’s that saying—We plan and God laughs? I don’t think he’s laughing but I may have heard a chortle or two. Because life is just plain funny and our attempts to control it even funnier.

I am currently working on breaking a lifelong habit of chronic messiness, the kind where you not only live in chaos, but cannot locate some important item you need at a critical moment. And something I read recently has helped a lot. It talked about having a friendlier, less judgmental attitude toward our own failings. If I stop beating myself up for my messiness, it may create enough space to make a few positive changes and step out of the shame zone. Ken used to complain bitterly about me to our friend Carol who cleaned our house back in the prosperous days. She never failed to remind him that I had many fine qualities even if neatness was not among them. I loved her for that and shall strive to remember it myself, even while committing to tidying up a bit more. The key there is a BIT. I am a black/white, on/off type of person and in this endeavor it will be important not to throw in the towel the second I realize that a total transformation of a 60-year habit is neither attainable nor necessary. Incremental movement would be fine. An AVERAGE job of reforming.

So I am going to start aiming for average. Average days, average weeks, average life. I expect there will still be some very high highs and also low lows, but as in math, when you add them up and divide by the number of occurrences you get an average that may tick just above the midline. And that’s good enough.

Go out and have yourself an average day and be glad in it!

Radical Self Care

At my meditation class this week, one of the regulars said that she was going through a time in her life where she knew she needed to engage in “radical self-care” and that she knew just how to do that. Hmmmm. I believe I am at a stage where I could use a bit of that myself, but am not quite sure I know how to administer it. I turned to a small book I was given years ago after my first divorce, “How to Survive the Loss of a Love”. This little gem is chockfull of practical advice on what to do when your heart is broken: how to walk through, not around, your feelings, how to ask others for support, when to seek professional help AND how to engage in self-care. It turns out I am already pretty good at this list: take long hot baths, eat the foods you were given for comfort as a child, book a massage, try to get 3-7 hugs per day, drink a lot of water. I like this book so much I Amazoned a copy to the man I just broke up with. He won’t read it, but at least he will know I am thinking of his healing as well as my own and that I bear him no ill will.

Because the truth is that breaking up was the greatest act of radical self-care I may have ever engaged in. As I explained to my sister over a belated birthday dinner last night, I have had a squeezing sensation in my chest for the past year. I knew it was emotional distress and not physical, but I wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong. It went away within seconds of the breakup along with the terrible feeling that I had to keep trying to win this man’s favor, that if I only maxed out my effort he would truly love me the way I need to be loved and we could make a life together. My best friend told me 6 months ago that this relationship was way too much work for way too little happiness and that I needed to cut bait and flee. She was right, but I wasn’t ready.

And the book says that a current loss can open the floodgates of past losses, which explains why I started crying at the fireplace store when I admitted I was afraid to relight the pilot on my gas logs for fear of screwing it up and blowing myself to smithereens! When the very kind man there asked if I had ever lit a pilot before I said that Tom had always done it but had passed away and then I lost it. The poor guy said he was sorry and then nobly soldiered on to show me enough that I could go right home and do it by myself, saving a $99 service call and a long wait behind people with ACTUAL heating and cooling issues. When Alyssa saw me writing him a thank you note she scoffed and said I was excessive in my note writing, but I think not. I think another part of radical self-care is being grateful for small things and saying thank you. Putting out a kinder, gentler, more appreciative vibe during a time when your insides feel so wobbly.

So my massage is Monday, I took a bike ride today, drank some water and am off to a Halloween extravaganza NOT because I feel like partying, but because I know I need to be with other people, a lot of other people, to remember that the world keeps going even when our hearts break. And I just carried soup and grilled cheese on a tray up to my sick teen so that some day when her heart breaks she can read the little book and remember her childhood comfort foods. We may all be on our own journeys, we may all be here to grow our souls, but it is so much easier when you get some help along the way.

Senior Advice

I ‘ve just received a cool request. The mother of 17-year-old twins is compiling life advice from the important adults in their lives for a book to be presented on their birthday next month. These girls have spent a week with us every summer since they were 6 and I love them dearly. As high school seniors they are in the throes of college apps and all the other pressures of looming transitions. It struck me as ironic that I, too, am a senior, of the far older variety, facing the uncertainties of the future and needing to make some big decisions.

Although I usually have lots to say on any topic, I had instant clarity about what to write on the 5 by 7 page I was allotted.

It’s never too late!                                                                                                                                Nearly all choices can be undone so don’t fret about the ones you have to make.              This includes: What college to attend, what to major in, who to marry, where to settle, which house to buy, which friends to keep, which OB/GYN to trust, which career to choose and which day care option to use for your kids. It can ALL be changed.                      You don’t have to get everything right on the first try.                                                                   I gave birth to my last baby at age 45.                                                                                               I found my dream career at age 50.                                                                                                   I met the love of my life at age 55.                                                                                                       It is never too late to start over.

Although that was all I had room to include, I was also thinking that my mom took up piano at 88, the same age at which my first husband’s beloved Nana (a role-model for aging if ever there was one) hopped a train to Colorado to hang with some old friends. My erstwhile boyfriend would sigh fairly often in the presence of the young and say “My only regret is not having kids” and yet I could come up with a dozen women by sundown who would be thrilled to carry his child–even at his advanced age.  If you really want something, GO FOR IT, find a way to make it happen. It is never too late to get the life you want.

I see now that this message may have sprung to my pen so easily because the intended audience was actually ME. The future is looking a little scary, a little lonely and fraught with big decisions. But it will be ok. I will make the choices and if they are not the right ones I’ll make new ones. Lord knows, I’ve done it before.

My youngest daughter loves old people (why not? She’s spent her life with them!) and chose to interview some for a mini-documentary project for school. They shared on camera their life experiences and the changes they have seen in the world. I wonder what wisdom they might have shared with the 17-year-olds behind the camera. What did The Depression, World War II  and other challenges teach them? How were they shaped by these experiences. What would they want younger people to know? What senior advice would they have to impart?

I have seen too many Made-For-TV movies about dying moms leaving videos for their children, chock full of warm wisdom and all the advice they wouldn’t live to deliver. I am not dying (at least right away!) but I still feel a pull to do something like that, to put in words, on paper that will survive me, all the things I would want my girls to know, all the things I would tell them about life —just in case I am NOT here by the time they reach some crucial junction. I miss my dad a lot lately and would love to have a little Bible of Wally’s Wisdom to consult like a Ouija board.  Where should I live dad? How can I be a useful old person? Should I give up on romantic love and just settle in to widowhood? How cool IS it up there anyway? He had opinions about everything and was even surer than I am that he possessed the perfect plan for absolutely everyone’s life. A little of that rock-solid assurance would feel good about now.

But maybe that’s the point. When I turned to my therapist after 5 long years, when I had finally decided to leave Ken, I said, “Jeez Karen! You HAD to have known this was the necessary outcome all along. Why didn’t you just TELL me and save us both 5 years?!?!” But she reminded me that’s not how it works. When other people TELL you how to live your life you resent them or don’t believe them or get mad and decide to do the exact opposite. We have to figure it out for ourselves. Not everything. But a lot of it. We are here to grow our souls–period. And sometimes that is a long, hard, lonely process.

So I hope the birthday twins take in my advice and that offered by all the other adults who love them. But I know they and my kids and everybody else have their own journey to make, distinct from any that’s been made before or will come later. They have to live as they feel moved to live, making mistakes, choosing the wrong detour here and there but getting to the end in the same place we all do.  I hope they have some fun along the way.

Happy birthday K & K. I love you and I’ll be rooting for you.

The Break Up

My favorite non-fiction author, Anne Lamott, had a throw away line in a recent essay: “I had just broken up with a man I loved and who loved me…” My first thought was “HUH?!? How does THAT happen?” If you love someone and they love you, why would you need to break up? Mutual love is a rare and wonderful thing. If you find it aren’t you supposed to hang on as tight as you can and find a way around, under, over or through all obstacles? But now I get it. Now I know first hand that it is possible to love and be loved and still not find happiness, still not be able to make a life with someone.

This is, for the record, enormously sad. To get so far down the field, to make it through casual dating, find mutual attraction and admiration and have that blossom into love and caring, make a scrapbook’s worth of memories together, meet each other’s friends and families and feel their warm embrace and collective joy at your coupling, to do all that and still not be able to seal the deal just seems wrong. John used to say in our earlier, rosier days, “If we can’t make something this good work–shame on us!” But it is not shameful. It is just very, very sad.

It was, perhaps, inevitable. I had filled journal pages with complaints large and small over the past year.  We had already had one actual break up and several near misses. Each time we had hung in by the slim margin of “I’d rather have you in my life than not”. But it now seemed that unhappy together had taken the lead by a hair, that bad times outweighed the good, that the calms between the storms were shorter.

Chief among the woes was our complete inability to problem solve any issue related to behaviors one or the other of us didn’t love about the other.  This still surprises me because John is an actual therapist and I have spent plenty of time in therapists’ offices. But all the rules of civil engagement seem to fly out the door when one’s less attractive qualities are being highlighted, when entrenched behaviors are being challenged, when decades-old coping mechanisms are found wanting.

He had lived alone for 25 years. I was only a couple of years out of a blissful marriage ended by death. Neither of us were young. Neither of us wanted to grow old alone. We both loved old-time ballads, The New York Times and flowers. He was a handsome charmer who was a delight at every social gathering. He whisked me off for weekends in warm places. I helped him choose a headstone for his dad’s grave and tried to organize family photos that made him too emotional to look at. We each loved the heart and spirit, the mind and morals of the other. And our physical connection was profound. But love is complicated. It is full of triggers and land mines. Someone says or does something that reminds us of something in childhood or a past relationship and we are off—spinning into tangents of dissatisfaction and disappointment. (For more on this topic read Alain de Botton’s excellent “The Course of Love”.)

I thought I could side step all this with the brilliant Gary Chapman book “The 5 Love Languages”. When I first read it years ago I swore it could’ve saved my marriage to my girls’ father. If I had known that his love language was “acts of service” and been busy about sweeping the floor instead of try so hard to get fluent in the OTHER languages (words of affirmation, gift-giving, physical affection, time together) we might have made a better go of it. By the time I met John I understood that my love language was time together and told him that upfront. But it did not sink in. He wanted my understanding when he felt he had to work instead of going on a long scheduled vacation, when he went out for dinner with a friend on my first night back in town after a week away, when his priority was to care for the many things in his life rather than the person next to him. But I did not understand. I felt slighted, angry and unloved. I would make valiant attempts at positive self-talk (“It’s OK. He’s a great guy. He loves you. Look at how many nice things he does for you! Quit being so needy.) but they never worked. A little ember of resentment would catch hold and start a firestorm. I would write and write and write and then try to calmly distill my thoughts and talk to him but in vain. He never got it. He had his own unmet needs that mostly seemed to involve being left alone to live exactly as he always had with me in the cameo role of girlfriend.

What went wrong doesn’t really matter.  Now is the time to give in to grief as the unpleasant but necessary first step on the path to healing. In between binge-watching Downton Abbey and binge-eating the very delightful cinnamon sugar donuts conveniently delivered to my door as part of a neighborhood fundraiser (there is a God after all), I have made a very long list of the things I will not miss and a shorter one of the things I will miss very much indeed. John’s coping mechanisms are likely different. At his last breakup he chucked the woman’s pink bunny slippers and complete boxed set of The Godfather movies. But after a year and a half together it is shocking to realize that there is nothing to chuck—-nary a trace of either of us in the other’s home. A bit telling, that.

The lessons to be learned will become clearer as the tears dry. But I can already see that this relationship taught me that my patchwork heart still beats, that I am capable of love even after losing Tom, that you don’t get everything in a mate, but kindness really is the most important thing and is not quite the same as niceness or generosity. And, yes, that my own wilfulness, impulsivity and insistence on my own way might need a little softening to accommodate a partner. Damn. Just when I thought I was perfect.

I don’t know if I’ll try again. The “meet cute” of this relationship–having been fixed up almost simultaneously by two people who did not know each other but knew both of us–seemed like fairy dust and was infinitely easier than the time-consuming back-and-forth, pig-in-a-poke of online dating. But I still believe in love. I’d still prefer to grow old with a partner. I still like having someone be my person. And I really need the pilot light lit in my gas fireplace which I’m scared to do alone. Someplace in my head right now is a tune that must be from the 50s “Oh it’s so nice to have a man around the house” and I can’t get it to shut up.

But I could also move to Japan and teach English. The world is a great big oyster and I’m not done exploring it yet. Not by a long shot. But first I’ll need another box of kleenex–and a couple more (dozen) donuts.

Letter to My Love

Hi Sweetheart:

This has always been the place I go when missing you is just too hard and so I return today, in the very wee hours, when the hole you left seems especially big.

Like so many high school seniors in the month of October, our girl is struggling mightily. She wept in my arms for an hour last night saying it was all too much; too much pressure, too many deadlines in such a short time. She is at the end of marching band season, has a job I insisted she get, has hard classes I encouraged her to take and is applying to a boatload of colleges because she will need financial aid and falls in the scary crack of No Man’s Land for both need and merit based. Yes, she is very smart and wise and every bit as wonderful as when you left but carries a sadness about her, a world-weariness that makes her need to shut down just at the times life requires her to lean in. This does not always bring the very highest grades that the schools she’d like to attend now seem to use as the sole predictor of college success. I read the Frank Bruni book and I believe it. I know that in the end it really does not matter a whit where you go to college. What matters is what you make of wherever you go. But SHE does not believe that and after 17 years my mama cred is wearing a bit thin. If only you were here to have one of your famous talks. The ones where the other person does an hour-long data dump and you listen patiently and sift through the rubble to unearth the one important, hopeful, life-giving gem. I would give my eyed teeth for that one gift of yours above the dozens of others.

I sold your beautiful kayak. I wanted to finish it and put it in a charity auction and get top dollar, but it still needed too much work and I wasn’t up to the task. I’m sorry if you wanted me to keep it. I remember so well the winter you made it, in the basement of your rental house while I was upstairs reading or watching TV. It felt so cozy each of us doing our own thing and yet feeling together–a foreshadowing of the sweet few months of married life before you got sick. But when I looked at the boat it just made me sad and I knew I would never use it. People wanted me to hang it from the rafters of the cottage or turn it into some sort of art piece because the strip wood design was so exquisitely beautiful, but you built it to be on the water and I believe that’s where you’d want it to be. Through a crazy coincidence a friend knew an ice boater who knew and respected you and he came and took your damaged ice boat and your sailing suit and the kayak. I am sending his check to Hospice of Michigan as small thanks for all they did for us. I am sure you have already saved front row seats in heaven for every single angel who has ever worked there.

The sibling cruise finally happened with a couple of cousins on my mom’s side coming along for good measure. With our terrible luck in losing David before the first one and you before the second we needed to shake up the guest list and change our fate. When Annie and I saw that our flight returned on Friday the 13th we took big, deep breaths, but apart from catching a really bad cold that sent me to bed instead of Nuremberg, all was well. When the baby of the family is nearly 63 family reunions really can’t wait. I hope we will be able to do more traveling together. I so wish you could’ve been there. You would have loved every minute and been far more engaged in all the history than I was. Such a fine mind you had, my love. You always said your brain processed on a different channel and that was true, but once it had done all its work your insights and special takes on issues were remarkable. I’m sorry that school never felt like a hospitable environment for you, but it didn’t really matter. Everything you wanted to learn you taught yourself or found a mentor.

Speaking of mentoring, I just wrote Will’s college recommendation. I was so pleased that he asked me. Of course my letter was full of you and the special relationship you two shared, despite a 50 year age gap. It is no small thing when people become true friends, at any age. It was beautiful to see how knowing each other enriched both your lives. When Jill and I were sorting through garage things one day after you died she just kept shaking her head and saying “He was SUCH a cool guy.” Will is already well on his way to becoming just such a man. He’s an Eagle Scout, has an urban garden, went to this awesome wilderness program and is still building instruments. It hurts to think how much you could’ve helped him with that.

I guess that’s about it from here. Maybe you already know all of it. Maybe you are watching it all unfold? I waited another 6 months for a psychic appointment and then she had to cancel to care for a family member with cancer. There seemed to be some message in that so I didn’t reschedule. It seemed a little greedy to go back anyway. I got the wonderful gift of hearing from you once, knowing you had “made it” there and were ok, busy even, reviewing your life here and learning from it. Maybe she cancelled because at this point I am supposed to figure out my own life and stop leaning on you. That’s hard, sweetie. Very very hard.

In the next year Alyssa will leave and I will need to decide where to live, how much to work, when to take Social Security, how much I can afford to travel. The cottage needs a new roof and the cars are old. Hell, everything and everyone seems old these days! How did I get to be 63? You turned 63 right after we got married and were gone at 64. At least you didn’t have to see Trump. I hope there is no CNN in heaven. It would kill you  🙂

I have a good man in my life. I told him not to fetch me at the airport because I was so sick and didn’t want to expose him. I didn’t know I was setting him up, but I was. He agreed to let me take a taxi when you would’ve come and carried me to the van if necessary, made me soup and rubbed my feet. It is not his fault that he’s not you. You may have had Fred Flintstone size 8-1/2 EEEEE feet but your shoes are unfillable. The more I see other couples the more I know what a rare thing we had. All I really wanted was just to be in your presence. It felt like a gift every day. And the way you looked at me filled my cup to the brim. Thank you for that short, deep drink of amazing love. To be cherished even once in life is to glimpse the face of God.

I think I want to learn to teach ESL. I might be good at it and I could go to cool places not as a tourist but to live and maybe experience life in a different culture. We’ll see how life here unfolds, but you know me. I like having a plan on the back burner. I will never stop wishing that I could grow old with you, move to the cottage, become part of the community. But now it’s just me and I’ll need to figure out what I can do on my own. Hey, might make a good song title. Think I’ll mention it to those Les Miz guys. BTW Hamilton was amazing and you would’ve been blown away. Even my Broadway Bound version was really good. Genius writing plain and simple.

Going to New York for my birthday. It might be the first time since we went for my 60th. You were so sick and still wanted to do everything. It was great, but staying home and hugging would’ve been too.

OK-jet lag kicking in. Back to bed. Thanks for listening. I love you as much right now as I ever did and I will miss you every day of my life. I’ll try to do some stuff to make you proud before I get up there. Please do not give my seat away! With my gene pool it may take me a while to get there but I’m coming. Don’t give up on me!

All my love forever-

M.

 

On the Lazy Susan called Grief

I went to a book club meeting last night. The book was You Will Not Have My Hate, a very slim volume written by the husband of a young woman killed in a senseless terrorist shooting at a concert in Paris last fall. She left behind a 17 month-old son. Her husband made a Facebook post right after she died that went viral. It was addressed to the terrorists and basically said “You may have taken my wife, but you will not take my joy, my hope, my love, the best of me. You want me to hate you, but you will not have my hate. And you will not have my son’s either as he will grow up happy and free.”

I said at the meeting that the cynic in me could just hear the book publishers swarming after the FB post, telling the grieving husband and father that he simply owed it to the world to expand the story and make it a book. Once I ordered the book and started reading I had just a moment of wondering how I would feel, if it would bring my own grief back to the surface. But it didn’t. The circumstances were so different–a young mother cut down in her prime versus a senior citizen lost inch by inch to cancer.

But the discussion last night was different. There was lots of talk of grief, how it feels, how to cope, what’s helpful and what’s not. And THAT made it all come back. Not in a fresh, immediate kind of way or even like a scab being ripped off, but just a gauzy feeling of remembering–Oh yeah, that IS what it was like. This was especially true when the discussion turned to the comfort the author had taken in the daily routine of raising a toddler. You really cannot just sit in your room and cry when there are diapers to change and meals to make. Although I had no diapers, I did have a 14 year-old who was grieving as much as I was. It was my responsibility to her more than any other single factor that got me out of bed in the morning. Somedays ONLY that. I couldn’t die too, even though I wanted to, because that would leave her with no one to grieve with, no one to remember how much Tom loved us, no one to miss him with the same longing. We grieved very differently, but we found solidarity nonetheless and it helped.

In her book Small Victories, Anne Lamott wrote as true a description as I’ve ever read:

Grief, as I read somewhere once, is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and                       underwater, and the next day it spins and stops at loud and rageful, and the next day at wounded keening, and the next day at numbness, silence.

I have also heard it described as waves on the sand, but I like the spinning analogy more. Like Wheel of Fortune where the poor player is sitting on a ton of money and suddenly lands on the bankrupt spot. THAT is exactly how I felt. Sitting on top of the world one moment, late in life, improbably, and then watching it all disappear like cotton candy–too soon just a sweet memory.

It is helpful to remember all this on days when the spin is rough, when you are brought to your knees by something small you find in a drawer. Also helpful to remember to be grateful for ever being loved so well. Like the Winnie the Pooh quote that says how lucky to have had something so wonderful that you will miss it when it’s gone.

And good to remember things said last night about the need to show up for others, that there is nothing more meaningful than knowing other humans care enough to do SOMETHING, anything to help you along the way.  John is better at that than I am, visiting the sick and elderly, going to the funeral home and actually engaging with the family, attending funerals even if just to get the collective numbers up and let the family know their loved one was valued.

Those lessons apply outside of death too. Putting an arm around a sad child, having a pleasant exchange with the grocery clerk, helping an old person up a staircase , not honking when the guy at the stop light fails to move on green.

We are here to love. In grief, in sorrow, at death’s door, on sunny days in August. No matter where the wheel of fortune lands. All the time and forever. Amen.