Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cracked Grace: Grief’s Presence Revisited

Cracked Grace

I don’t often repost blogs, nor do I have a year-end review. I make an exception today. January 20 of 2014, I said a final goodbye to my friend Kathy Dwyer Fulton. I consider the blog I wrote the day after her death my finest writing of the year. I did not share it on Facebook or other social media, but I share it today. Why today? Each of us is touched by Grief’s presence. We have been over the last year and likely will be during the New Year. As long as we live and love, we are not immune to loss and the pain it engenders. However, it’s important to continue to live and love, because in the end, love is all that matters.

Grief’s Presence

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form . . .
King John, Act III, Scene IV
   By William Shakespeare

Grief has a presence, it is tangible, as noted by the preceding Shakespeare quote. It takes up space. We feel it as it moves into and takes the place left by our loved ones when they die. Recognize and honor Grief for what it is. When Grief’s persona comes into our lives, often the only thing we can do is walk with, sit with, and even lie on our beds with Grief.

* * * * *

Grief and I crept into my bed on Monday afternoon.
I curled my body atop the down comforter, warmed from the sleeping cat.
Chocolate, English Breakfast tea, a heating pad, a deck of cards, and a book accompanied me.
Spent beyond tears, beyond speech, beyond communication, beyond sleep,
I set the heating pad on high to rid my bones of a deep, persistent ache.
Chocolate and hot tea were my lunch.
Solitaire and a book were my diversions.
Grief stayed on, its quiet presence perched at the edge of my bed, persistent as the ache in my hips.
Earlier that day, I suggested a half-hearted duel with Grief,
And stretched my mind, heart, and soul to carry on, to walk through, work through the day.
I failed to drop my glove, so Grief was gentle with me,
And recognized that my efforts at avoidance were in vain.
Grief outstretched its hand to mine and together we tiptoed to my room, where I stayed throughout the day and into the night.
At morning light, no longer spent, nor encapsulated in sorrow,
I left the evening-chilled dregs of tea, chocolate wrappers, heating pad, cards, and book behind.

I then ventured with tentative steps toward a changed life.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cracked Grace: Sitting with, Experiencing the Pain

Cracked Grace
What to Do with the Pain

“Ouch!” It hurt, but not in a physical sense, unless one counts the metaphorical heart as physical. It was a direct snub, so it wasn’t a big thing, just one of the hundreds of things we face because we are human. It feels like I’m home watching The Love Boat while everyone else is at the dance. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, but it does.
Revenge, snide remarks, and disassociation all crowd my head as I consider the pain once, twice, a third time. “Forget it, and move on,” I tell myself. “Take _________ off the list.”
I stopped short in my mental dialogue when I realized I was doing everything to avoid what was most real for me: I’m hurt.
I know that to “move on,” I have to sit with the hurt and experience it, rather than react, rather than respond. In my grand scheme of what I call my life, how I react—or don’t—and how I respond—or don’t—matter to me as a person and reflect how I yearn to conduct my life. I want to be of use to myself, to others, to those I know and love, and those I have yet to meet on my journey. So, first, foremost, I will feel, then I will move forward, and then I will move beyond, absent the pain, but secure in the knowledge that I did not create more.
* * * * *
Rather than react, respond, or seek revenge, what can you sit with today? What can you resolve? How can you continue to maintain and create peace?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The tiniest coffins are the heaviest."

Dear Pakistan:
I Am Your Sister in Mourning
 “The smallest coffins are the heaviest.”
(The quote is from a poster held outside the school in Peshawar, Pakistan.)

Evil personified oozed its malicious presence into a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Wednesday, December 17. Before being exorcised, Taliban gunmen wrought their cruel, misguided, and dark brand of religious justice on those within the school’s walls. They said their god is great as they rained down a particular hell of their creation. No god of greatness would ever sanction such atrocities.
One hundred and thirty-two children died from their bullets. Thirteen adults died from their bullets. More than 100 people are injured from their bullets.
One hundred and thirty-two children will never again sleep in their beds. Mothers and fathers, siblings, family, and friends now grieve one hundred and thirty-two children. Funerals were held for one hundred and thirty-two children. At least one hundred and thirty-two mothers and fathers stumble in their homes, shrouded in grief, dulled into shock and dismay.
 Peshawar, Pakistan: What seems so far away from my Florida home is not. As I consider this unfathomable loss, it’s here in my kitchen. It’s here in my living room. It’s here beside me as I walk throughout this day, as I walk throughout this life.
I did not bury one hundred and thirty-two children, but I buried one. I know the broken heart of a mother. I know the bitter pill of mourning a life cut short far too soon. I cannot claim to know the particular pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. I cannot claim to know the particular pain of a parent who sent their child to school, believing they would return later that day, and then knowing their child will never come home again.
I do know the pain of loss, though, the pain of missing so many things: my child’s laughter, my child’s kisses, my child’s love. I know the pain of a longing that will never be fulfilled. Because I know that much of the pain of a child’s death, dear Pakistan, I am your sister in mourning. I am your sister in grief. I weep with you from miles and mountains and oceans away. I wish to comfort you, yet know that I cannot, that your journey through this singular agony is your own. I reach my hands toward you in a prayer of peace.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Laughter Opens the Door to Joy

Laughter Opens the Door
And Joy Comes Inside

“Don’t be concerned about being disloyal to your pain
by being joyous.” ~ Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

The first time it happened, I was confused—a stranger in an unknown land. I stepped off the plane of sorrow and into a foreign place, one where I didn’t know the language and was unfamiliar with the customs. But I knew that language at one time in my past. I had practiced that custom—often.
Where had I journeyed? Into the land of laughter, into the presence of joy.
Four weeks of soul-deadening grief had stripped my defenses bare. My husband, my fourteen-year-old daughter, and I mourned with unceasing tears the death of our child, the death of her sister. It was fitting that even in South Florida, those November and December pre-solstice days were dark, not only in our psyches, but also in the days that had so little sunlight. That lack of light mirrored how we felt as we trudged through the short days and longer nights that signal the most profound grief.
Nowhere was laughter present. Nowhere did joy show its face . . . until one evening at the dinner table. My daughter Vee said or did something zany and laughter seized the three of us. It grabbed us by the collars and refused to let go until its joyous peals rang through the house and echoed from the walls that had been painted with sorrow.
Laughter erupted from deep within each of us, released from that which had bound it for weeks.
Tears of mirth trickled down our cheeks, our noses ran, and we shook with glee. When my laughter faded, it struck me that it was the first time I had experienced joy since Alexa died. I felt no guilt. Never before or since have I been so aware of laughter—so aware of joy.
I welcomed the joy as I might a new friend into my life. My grief wasn’t over; it never will be over, but that laughter opened the door and let joy return to my life.
Often, after profound loss, we take on the cloak of grief as if it’s our new responsibility to wear it for the rest of our lives. We fear that if our sorrow leaves, our love for the one we lost also will leave.
Joy cannot and will not diminish the love we have for those we now grieve. Our pain and loss are not nullified when we once again seek, find, and welcome joy into our lives.
The joy that returns is the same joy that our loved ones brought to us during their livesor we wouldn’t grieve them. It is the same joy that leads us to live meaningful lives in spite of loss—and sometimes even because of loss.
Laughter and joy bring light and even more love into our lives, and for that we should never grieve, but rather be grateful. Laughter and joy are the healing balm that mends our hearts.

In this holiday season and every season, remember to open yourself to joy, to open yourself to laughter, and to open yourself to love.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Ack What?

Ack What? Akrasia!
Americans often fritter away their time just like they use oil—as if we have an unlimited supply.
Akrasia is a fine “fritter-away” word. It’s the state of mind in which we act against our better judgment, through weakness of will. It’s also when we do something we want to do, all the while knowing we should be doing something else.
Akrasia stepped across the page I read earlier today. I wanted to read instead of tackle the “do-do” list. But more than that, I wanted to do the things I love that make me feel whole, healthy, alive: exercise, practice yoga, write, garden.
Like oil, my time is finite. Akrasia, step aside, I’m doing the things I love. How will you use your time today?

You can find the definition of akrasia here:

Monday, December 1, 2014

Just Desserts Leave a Bitter, Burning Taste

He Is Dead
Lost and Found Among the “Hurting”
I lost my compassion last week. I misplaced it at CNN.com, MSNBC.com, HuffingtonPost.com, Facebook.com, or Slate.com. My compassion disappeared as Ferguson was set afire in response to “Burn this bitch down.” The flames, looting, fists, and fury set my own psyche afire. Because I had watched the video of the store manager roughed up when he protested the theft of Cigarillos, I decided that the gunshots that rang out a short while later were just desserts. I pooh-poohed the “gentle giant” quote when I saw a man get shoved by someone who was for sure a giant, and for sure not “gentle.”
I was angry and I still am. I don’t know what happened the night in Ferguson when Michael Brown died. I don’t know what evidence the grand jury heard. I don’t think anyone knows for sure what took place, except two people: Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Only one lives to tell his story.
I’m angry that Ferguson burned. I’m angry that racism continues. I’m angry that being a young black male is so dangerous. I’m angry that young black men are feared and accused far too often because of who they are: young black men. I’m angry that the societal pressures they endure reinforce and perpetuate so many negative stereotypes.
I was so angry last week. Of course, I was certain my anger was righteous. I felt the keen edge of crime and punishment and was judge and jury all on my own. I was disgusted by what I saw, what I read, what I heard.
In my anger, dismay, and disgust, I became someone “other” than my real self. Anger, righteous or not, indignation, righteous or not, does that. Being jury and judge and determining just desserts does that.
I maintained that anger, dismay, and disgust for several hours Monday and into Tuesday. Midday on Tuesday, at a tea shop in town, where I met some friends, I found what I had lost: my compassion. One woman teaches biology at a local college. Earlier that day, she deviated from her lesson plan and showed videos. She asked the students why she was showing videos (other than being the coolest teacher ever). She told them she knew they were hurting that Tuesday morning after the Ferguson decision, the Ferguson burning. They needed something to lighten their day. She didn’t specify for what reason they were hurting. She didn’t specify on which side of the decision any of them sat. She simply noted that they were hurting. She also wanted them to know that although the world can be quite dark at times, some really, nice, cool folks are doing creative, fun things, and they can, too.
She also shared with me that she knows a relative of someone who was murdered a few weeks ago in our area. Some have surmised that he was a drug dealer who was shot for owing money. The facts aren’t all in and the details of the crime aren’t known, but one thing is known: He is dead. Regardless of on what side the victim sat or on which side his relative sits, he’s dead and she’s hurting.
My missing compassion showed up when I heard “She’s hurting.” I realized I had forgotten something more important than Ferguson burning, the looting, the grand jury, or Officer Wilson’s claim that he acted in self-defense. I forgot about people hurting. I forgot that Michael Brown is dead. I forgot that his mother buried her son. I forgot that his father and stepfather buried their son. I forgot that parents, relatives, friends, teachers, neighbors were hurting. I forgot that they buried Michael Brown. I forgot that regardless of what happened on that night in Ferguson, it ended with a young black man bleeding and dead in the street.
Just desserts don’t mean a thing when that dessert leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.
“They’re hurting.” “She’s hurting.”
Hearing those words erased the images of fires and broken glass, the words decrying the decision, the anger, and the despair.
A son, a relative, a friend, a student: He’s dead. And he is mourned because he was loved.
I have loved less-than-perfect people, and so have you. I have mourned less-than-perfect people, and so have you. When I lost my compassion for those few days, I also lost a bit of my humanity. I lost a bit of my heart.
I am grateful for the words that helped me find my compassion and my heart: “She’s hurting.” “They’re hurting.”
When people are hurting, rather than sit in judgment, rather than decry their actions, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we could step up and do whatever we can to stop the pain, stop the hurting?

The following links are to some of the videos my friend showed post-Ferguson—to help ease the “hurting.”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In Case of Attack, Don't Wrap It, Bag It

Baggies in the Bunk(er)
Post-Apocalyptic Hygiene—and Humor
“Don’t wrap it. Bag it . . . in Baggies.”

During the Cold War years, my classmates and I practiced duck-and-cover and evacuation drills in case of nuclear attack. Should one happen during school hours at our Jacksonville, Florida, elementary school, the plan was for us to walk to nearby railroad tracks and board trains for St. Augustine. There, we would shelter in Castillo de San Marco.
Each student had evacuation supplies to take with them on that walk. I remember only one item on the list: Baggies, which were a new product in the 1960s. The first plastic wrap bag on the market, Baggies meant brown-baggers were saved from the chore of peeling layers of wet wax paper from soggy sandwiches, pickles, fruit, and worse. All hail the baggie! We said goodbye to wilted, mushy lunches. Television commercials sang the praises of Baggies with the then-familiar jingle “Don’t wrap it. Bag it . . . in Baggies!” It became a stuck-in-your head sing-song like Frozen’s “Let It Go,” Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is,” or McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today.”
Mrs. Steffan, our no-nonsense teacher, stood at the front of the class and reviewed the disaster-preparedness supply list. One student raised his hand. “Why Baggies?” Glenn Gay asked.
She looked over her glasses at him, and steeled her eyes toward the class. “When you have to go to the bathroom, what do you think you’ll do if there aren’t any toilets?”
Glenn missed nary a beat: “Don’t wrap it. Bag it… in Baggies!”
Hilarity ensued. Joyous laughter filled the classroom. It was such a gift in the face of the fears we felt. Today, the memory continues to offer me a lighthearted memory of that time. Once safe from the threat, our supplies were sent home. I imagine many a child was relieved to use Baggies for their intended purpose.
* * * * *

If you are not worried about it getting “stuck in your head,” the original Baggies commercial can be viewed at the following YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IB3t9QzwZLU

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Russian Missiles Would Have Annihilated Us

Cold War Wake-Up
It might be better to not know everythingto not be afraid
—to not be very afraid.
Demanding attention, distinctive, and daunting, the frightening blare echoed toward my room. This Baby Boomer’s dormant, yet ingrained, training made me leap into action. Air-raid sirens do that. I jumped out of bed, alert, but questioning, and ran into the living room. “What was that?”
I spied my son, who had slept on the sofa, waking and pressing a button on his phone. “Sorry. That was my alarm,” he said. Alarm, indeed. Shaken, but relieved, I walked away, practicing yet another skill from those Cold War years: trying to calm myself after the all-clear. In gratitude, I noted that I did not have to move away from the windows, crouch beneath furniture, huddle in the hallway, arms protecting my head. I did not have to “Duck and cover!”
Evacuating my family was not necessary. Eating food set aside for emergencies (hurricanes in my current life) would not be necessary. An air-raid shelter would not be our next destination.
Fears calming, I nonetheless continued thinking about those Cold War years of fear and instructions on how to avoid death and destruction. I also thought about the gullibility of adults to believe anything other than death and destruction would be certain should a nuclear attack occur. Concrete bunkers and fallout shelters in basements would have done little to nothing to keep anyone safe. Duck and cover, shield your eyes from the nuclear flash, food stored in cardboard boxes—nothing more than bunk!
Prevailing pundits of the day fed bunk to children and adults. Now-declassified photos, films, and information about the aftermath of the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as other nuclear tests) have informed us that our civil defense preparations are as laughable as the final scene in Dr. Strangelove.
Not long ago, I watched Trinity and Beyond, a chilling documentary of the history of the atomic bomb, and was reminded of those years of fearjust as the early-morning air raid siren reminded me. As I discussed that era with a friend, I told him about the preparations we thought would help us survive an apocalypse. We considered the word bunker and its root: bunk. Bunk means nonsense. The bunkers we were advised to build and shelter within were bunk in the face of the total destruction of an atom bomb. Russian missiles poised in Cuba and aimed at military facilities in Jacksonville, Florida (where I lived), would have annihilated us.
These decades later, I know it’s all bunk, the shelters, the duck and cover drills, and shielding our eyes from flashes. Canned goods stored in car trunks would have fed no one: Those vehicles likely would have melted and become part of the asphalt roads on which they were parked.
As a child who was fearful about so many things, the threat of nuclear war was the worst fear tacked onto so many others. Already insecure, I felt some protection by participating in the drills and preparations for nuclear war. My family had a plan; our schools had a plan; we thought the government had a plan. That plan, like many others in society, allayed mass hysteria. Mass hysteria would have made any attack scenario unmanageable.
Perhaps It Was Better That We Did Not
Know the Depth of the Threat
On reflection, perhaps it was better that we did not know the depth of the threat and its aftermath. When I view that knowledge with today’s perspective and with the certainty that we would have suffered complete destruction, I feel a sense of relief. It is probably best that I knew so little, that my parents and other adults knew so little. In some cases, it’s best to not know everything, to not be afraid—to not be very afraid. We were afraid enough.
* * * * *
Trinity and Beyond is a documentary containing declassified military documents and footage regarding the development and use of the atomic bomb. Warning: The footage and commentary are graphic and frightening at times. However, the educational value of the film is outstanding.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Vigils—A Path Out of Darkness

A Path Out of Darkness
Days Pass By in What Once
Was a Long, Sad Month

October 16, 2014
October once was my longest, saddest month. During October, I am writing about the challenges we face during anniversary days, weeks, and months that mark extreme loss—or any intense, emotional life events. My child spent her last days on Earth in October of 1986. Memories of that time have affected not only October, but much of life since my seven-year-old Alexa died. Today, I share how we honor the memory of those we’ve lost during vigils.

Extending the olive branch of peace and healing.
(Stained glass window in Gracepoint Church, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida)
Candlelight flickers in a dark room, in a sanctuary, on a street corner, in groups gathered with a common purpose—to remember, to watch, to wait, to sit in silence and awareness. Warmth from the flames provides only scant heat to loosen the sometimes-icy grip of grief on the hearts of those who meet to remember.
Light, precious light, illuminates each event to ward away the darkness that can overwhelm when life’s events are too much to bear. Vigils are times of gathering in the light and provide the gift of being in community with like-hearted people. People share the same depths of the soul at the vigils they attend.
We have vigils because when marking times of sadness, loss, and grief, we don’t want to be alone. We hunger for the company of those who understand and welcome those who wish to be understood. Loneliness can weight the emotions of loss and make them too heavy to bear. Emotions immediately following loss often spur people to act. What can they do? How can they process the event? They gather at a designated time and place memorials, light candles, stand in solemn prayer. Such gatherings do not change the nature of life’s unhappy events, but they often answer the question: “What can I do?” Meeting with others can be the beginning of healthy mourning.
Fear of forgetting loved ones can haunt those of us left behind. We know time will pass, life will change, and the face of our loss will change. But some things we don’t want to change. We don’t want to forget. We’re afraid that in forgetting, we stop loving. Vigils give us an opportunity to say publicly, “Yes, I remember. Yes, I still love.”
Annual vigils, not unlike pilgrimages, give us an opportunity to hold each other up. In the community of a vigil, stories can be shared. Hope can be shared. Healing can be shared. Guilt can be soothed. Frustration and a sense of failure can be diminished.
Following a vigil, rather than being overwhelmed by sadness, participants often remember not only what they lost, but what they loved. That love continues to hold them long after the last candle is extinguished, the lights have come on, and everyone goes home. It’s the light of love that carries us through that journey and the journey we take each day—a new journey, a different journey, but one of hope and healing after loss.

♥ ♥ ♥ 
My dear friends Chris and Darrell Smethie lost their beautiful son Courtland almost three years ago. Saturday evening, October 18, they are hosting a NOPE (Narcotics Overdoes Prevention and Education) vigil in Ft. Lauderdale to honor the memory of those lost to and suffering from substance abuse. Please join us and bring light and healing to your own life and the lives of others who struggle with this problem. NOPE vigils are held throughout the country this month.
Information regarding the NOPE Candlelight vigil in Ft. Lauderdale follows:
October 18, 2014, Reception 6:30 p.m., Ceremony 7:00 p.m.
Gracepoint Church
5590 NE 6th Avenue
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Contact Chris Smethie: chrisstruther@hotmail.com

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 
Vigils need not be public. Nor do they need to be held on a certain day. Anyone can light a candle when life seems too dark. Anyone can contribute to or volunteer for organizations that help bring light to the world: Compassionate Friends, Children’s Miracle Network, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Such organizations abound and can help us find our way out of the dark by bringing light to those still here.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Loss will touch each of us. That touch can sear our souls. As a healing balm, I present a new October. Rather than become snared in the dread of loss, I intend to spin a circle of compassion. I loved Alexa. I lost her. What did I love that made the loss so keen? What do I do, and what will I do to keep from stumblingthrough October and every day, week, month? By sharing my journey, I hope to make yours easier, to offer a hand when you stumble, to keep you from falling. If you fall, I want my hand to be there to help you up and back into life.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Do you have a “long, sad, month” or do you know of someone who is stuck in the depths of grief? Please feel free to share your concerns, struggles, victories in the comments. I welcome private correspondence at mysistersgarden@gmail.com.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Truth: I Lie to Me

Truth: I Lie to Me
Each of us must find our truth in the present.
I ponder truth, and all that comes to mind is lies.
Lie to me. I do it all the time. I tell my lies when I’m future self. Future self lies every day. Future self will . . . write later, exercise tomorrow, eat healthier—next week.
Lie to me. I do it all the time. Nebulous future self is my biggest lie. Truth lies in my substance as a living being—a woman, mother, writer, gardener. My core truth resides in the now—with every breath, thought, movement, with every word, written or spoken.
The truth of my fleeting self is that I am here for but a minute capsule of time—my presentso why would I ever lie to me?
The Great Until also puts powerful brakes on living my truth.
Lie to me. I do it all the time: “Until the dishes are done, floor mopped, mortgage paid (fill in the blank ____________). Until the Great Until, I continue to lie to me.
I lie to me. I do it all the time. It paralyzes me.
Will I lie to me today? I must, we all must, find our truth in present self and banish The Great Until to the great beyond.