Christmas and loss

My apologies for my long absence. This has been a time of transition and upheaval. I left my job of 17 years in early October with a plan to focus on my own writing, do some freelance work, and teach. I was—am—eager to move into this next phase and also a bit apprehensive and sorry to leave my colleagues.

I thought the job transition would be the primary story of this fall and winter. But, sadly, overshadowing the work transition has been the ill health and death of Barbara, my older and only sister.

A couple of days after my final day at work, I got a call that she was gravely ill. Her health started failing last winter and in April she went into a care home in England, where she’s lived for many years. I visited her in June and then flew to England again in October, after I got the emergency call. She rallied a bit while I was there but then went rapidly downhill through November. She died in early December

I’ve been writing during these months of blog silence and have just posted three backdated entries–I invite you to check them out:

Sometimes I need a list (October 26)

Rain then sun (November 8)

“Hope is the thing…” (November 14)

For now, here are some reflections on Christmas this year.

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Sadness and joy can co-exist. That’s a lesson I’m learning and re-learning this Christmas season.

IMG_0216I put the Christmas tree up a week ago. I bought the tree in late November because the garden center quickly runs out of the small, table top trees I like. It languished in the dark, cold garage for weeks. I dragged my heels about putting it up because I was wary of the emotional impact, weighing the possible—probable—sadness against the pleasure I get from bringing the green and light into the house.

And perhaps if I’d waited until Christmas eve to decorate the tree, had the twelve lessons and carols service from King’s College, Cambridge, playing in the background, remembered sitting with Barbara in her English home watching the service in real time, the sadness would have deepened.

But this year I simply felt my usual mix of nostalgia and pleasure as I draped the white lights and hung the familiar ornaments, a few that have been handed down from our dad’s childhood tree, a few that friends have given me, some I’ve bought over the years. Under the tree I placed the wooden village that was under dad’s tree. I did not put Kris Kringle on the top. This is another ornament from dad’s childhood but Kris is old and fragile and now retired to the china cabinet. Instead I perched a cardinal, honoring our mom and her love of these birds.

As often happens when we’re living through an experience, gifts float our way. On a friend’s recommendation I listened to a recent On Being podcast. Krista Tippett’s guest was Pauline Boss, who teaches and writes about ambiguous loss, that loss you feel when a loved one is alive but lost to you for some reason, the loss I felt for my sister over the last few months of her life.

She talked about the “myth of closure.” “‘Closure’ is a terrible word in human relationships,” she said. “Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them—when they’re lost you still care about them. It’s a different dimension, but you can’t just turn it off.” Grief continues and in some way gets integrated into our lives.

She also disputed the idea of the five stages of grief. She said that Kubler-Ross intended those stages to describe the experience of people living with terminal illness, not the experience of those left behind after a death. Instead, grief is episodic, kaleidoscopic, appearing and receding.

My grief for my sister often feels muted, subterranean and then fissures open and sadness bubbles up—I had a day like that on a recent Saturday. I took part in my usual Saturday morning routines—coffee with a friend, farmers’ market with another friend—but then in the afternoon I retreated to the couch and opened to a deep sense of loss. I sat with the feeling until it passed, as these feelings do, but was left with a lingering lethargy of spirit. 

But even when I’m not consciously feeling sad, I know my mind and body are absorbing the loss on some level. I read an essay by the Irish writer Derek O’Connor about his grief at his wife’s death. He describes a conversation with a friend who is a scientist: “She details the neuroscience of grief, how mourning is the process by which the brain repairs itself.” The neuroscience of grief—I want to know more.

I talked with my cousin Kathy shortly after Barbara died. She lives on the west coast and we see each other rarely but she’s family, she’s continuity. Her voice sounds like her mother’s voice and I remember that her mother sounded like my mother—echoes rippling out, bridging time and loss. Her parents and her only sibling are also dead. “We’re adult orphans,” she said. I take that in.

I spent Christmas eve at a dinner party with old and new friends and gathered with other friends for a meal on Christmas day. Both days were filled with laughter and connection, the warmth of good company. On Christmas day we toasted those who were missing from the circle, including my sister, and in doing so made a space for them around the table.

Someone once told me that decorations on a tree at winter solstice represent souls of the dead. A quick Google search yields one website that makes that point and then others that say the decorations represent wishes for the year to come. I choose to think of the tree as both—a nod to memories of those who have died and a nod, as well, to life and light in the darkest season.

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Here are two previous posts about Christmas:

Homesick for Christmas

Kris Kringle

 

 

 

“Hope is the thing…”

Yesterday was another cold, rainy November day. A day for the couch and repeated naps. But there I was, out and about, wearing my bright blue raincoat. First stop Starbucks where I sat in the caffeinated warmth, tapping away on my laptop, putting thoughts on screen. Then on to meet a friend for lunch. She was reluctant to go out but succumbed to my assertion that soup and baked goods would do us both good. Unfortunately, the cafe was out of soup.IMG_0168

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul”—that line sang in my brain as I drove the rainy streets. Hope has been knocking on my door recently, let me in, let me in. I open the door warily and keep the chain on.

Over the past few days, I’ve been getting tweets from a conference for elementary and middle school educators–the theme of the conference is “hope.” One tweet quoted John Dewey: “Hope arouses in us the energy to change our circumstances, not to simply be optimistic or have wishful thinking that they will get better on their own…” Hmm….I need to sit with that one. Hope arouses energy—but don’t we need energy to hope?

I often use “hope” the same way I might use “wish” or “pray”—I look at tall trees swaying in strong wind at the back of the garden and say I hope they don’t get blown down and fall on my house or I write to a friend who’s been ill, I hope you get better soon. “Hope” in those statements has no agency—it’s a plea, an incantation set free.

But “hope arouses in us the energy…” asks me to think of hope as a muscle that needs exercise; an intention that requires action. Hope is not just a thing with feathers; it’s a thing with strong beating wings and heart.

Another tweet: In hopeless times, how do we foster hope in ourselves?

I think of myself as basically optimistic—and as I key that in, I immediately think “privilege,” I think “white,” “middle class,” I think back on a long history of things generally working out for me, of my sense of agency. But as I age, that optimism and belief in my ability to control and shape the future is tempered and challenged.

Where does hope fit in? What do I hope for? In hopeless times, how do we foster hope? What can I—we—do to counter hopelessness?

I’m tempted to end this with some wise or insightful statement, something forward looking. Instead, I sit with the questions. All I can offer is a circle back to the opening scene—on a dark, chilly wet day, we put on bright colors, step out the door, and connect—with our thoughts, our friends, the world around us. 

Rain then sun

Tuesday’s chill, dark rain sank me, drowned me. I drifted through the gloom, semi -reclined on the couch, bright yellow throw over my legs, streaming video on the laptop. Anyone peering in the front window would have thought I was ill and maybe in some soul space I was—not exactly ill but tired, damp, moldy.

I got up from the couch to make lunch, run a quick errand, make supper, do some minimal tidying up. I did not read a good book, make soup or bread, sweep up the leaves I’d tracked in from the front walk, do any of the items on my to-do list, exercise, meditate, write. I tell myself I need these down days but I’m not sure that’s true.

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I think of my sister every day. She’s hard to reach by phone these days. She’s sleeping a lot and not always making sense when she’s awake. She’s slipping away from me, from us. Last week I wrote her a letter and emailed it to M to deliver. I’ll do the same this week.

I think of her everyday but especially on a couch day like Tuesday when her image hovers like a warning, my last view of her as I left her in late October, lying in bed unable to tend to herself, bathe, feed, turn over in bed. She’s so frail and weak. She sleeps, wakes, sleeps again. I whisper to myself to move, to use my strong enough body, my agile enough brain while I can.

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Light returned. Two crisp, clear, sunny days. My to-do list still languishes with items unchecked but I got off the couch and out into the world. Walks around the neighborhood, dinner with a friend.

Yesterday, mid-afternoon, I went into the garden to empty some pots, put away chairs, cut back the rose bushes. As I walked around the house and into the back yard, crunching through leaves, I startled a Barred Owl—it soared across the backyard to a new perch in a pine tree near my compost pile, just above the garden cart I needed for my clean up tasks. I walked toward the cart as quietly as I could, not wanting to startle the owl again. It sat there as I retrieved the cart and went about my clean up tasks then flew off again, toward the field behind my house. 

I dumped the accumulated dirt and plant debris onto the compost pile and walked back toward the house slowly, stopping to look and wonder at the light glinting through yellow leaves on a Norway maple.

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Sometimes I need a list

  1. I’m still waking early, as if needing to go to work. I look at the clock. Tell myself to relax back to sleep but it doesn’t work. I get up into the darkness and the cold. Coffee made and poured, cat fed, laptop at hand, I settle on the couch and watch the sky lighten up.
  2. Maybe I should switch my routine, sit in the comfy chair rather than the couch, face the other direction on the couch so I’m looking out the back window, sit at the dining table like I used to do when I only had a few minutes to sip and stare before shower, dress, breakfast, leave for work.
  3. Sleepiness lingers. I see neighbors walking by with determined pace, early morning exercise walkers. Maybe I should join them—but I quickly push that idea away. I prefer lounging in my pjs as coffee slowly wakes up my cells.
  4. What shape will my life take now that I’m not heading out to a job each day? I try to see that as an exciting invitation but anxiety and restlessness creep in. My house seems small. By mid-day I’m pacing, trying to think of someplace to go but all venues, except the library, involve spending money, which I’m trying not to do. I tell myself that one cup of coffee or tea at a local cafe won’t break the budget.
  5. My world is opening up, expanding beyond the confines of a job. I feel a clench of anxiety as I write that. As soon as the letters hit the screen, I counter the thought. What if I get sick? What if I (fill in the blank with any catastrophe)? I begin to delete the words then stop myself. 
  6. “My world is opening up” is not a conditional statement.
  7. I have lists of things to accomplish—calls to make; business cards to create; a website to set up; emails or letters to send to potential freelance customers; workshops to plan, advertise, organize. I have friends to check in with, a piano that hasn’t been played in a long time, leaves to rake, woodsy paths to walk, knitting projects that have lingered in a bag for years, a stack of books to read, stories to tell, words and more words to write.
  8. I’ve been playing a lot of online Spider Solitaire. A small internal voice chides me—you’re wasting time. But there’s something soothing about moving those cards around and satisfying when I win.
  9. I’ve been interested to see how my approach to the game has evolved with time and circumstances. When I was in England last week, wearing the stress and sadness of my sister’s situation, I couldn’t play—I’d try and then give up after a few moves. Now, I’m more patient. I still hit “new game” if the initial card layout doesn’t yield many moves but once I get going, I persist, undoing and trying new moves as needed until I hit the right sequence and the cards fall into place. And there’s a lesson there about play and practice and experimentation and finding my way through—and about knowing when to stop, bail out, start over with a new game.
  10. Bit by bit, may I open to my life, right now, in its messiness, starts and stops and do-overs, its pain, joy, excitement, sadness, anxiety, loss, contentment.   

And write about what I’m living

Mid-morning on a sunny, late summer Sunday, and a day wide open before me. I just did a tour of the garden, pausing to pull up weeds and then carry my handful back to the compost pile. The garden is thriving after our recent rainy season although the promising crop of blueberries all disappeared as they ripened—I have netting draped across the bushes but I think some critter must be getting underneath to feast. Any squirrels or raccoons out there with blue mouths?

I’ve been in summer mode. Lanquid in the alternating heat and rain. I started a few blog posts and then abandoned them. I’ve gone to work, walked down the block to look at the sunset most evenings that it wasn’t pouring rain, eaten ice cream with friends, sat on the back porch listening to crickets as it gets dark or bird song first thing in the morning.IMG_0057

I went to a Saturday morning Tanglewood rehearsal, spent a day with friends at a New Hampshire lake, a week in New Hampshire for work, and two weeks in England with my sister. Soon the university and colleges will start up, the pace is quickening as we approach autumn. Various writing projects are swirling in my head and I’m getting ready to dig in.

That “back-to-school” energy has also led to cleaning out closets and clearing off bookshelves—my house is in chaos with stacks of things to toss and stacks to move to a new location. The next step is shifting furniture around and eventually my guest room will be a combination guest room and office and the room that is now doing triple duty as laundry room, cat box home, and cluttered, messy office will become a utility room.

This is something I’ve thought about doing for years and am finally acting on because…drumroll…I’m making a transition from working full time for someone else to freelancing—hence the need for a more functional home office.

The clearing out process has slowed periodically as I discover old journals, folders of letters, and boxes of photos. I pause to thumb through and sometimes get lost in the dreams and fears and ideas from 10, 15, 20 years ago. One such find was a copy of the Berkshire Review from 1998, which included an essay of mine, “Transitional Seasons.”

I wrote the essay just after leaving a career as a social worker and, new MFA in hand, venturing into the world of writing, editing, and teaching. I describe being lured away from writing and into the garden. I muse on the lessons I learned in the garden—and in the pottery studio—about the desire for control vs. the need to let go and trust the process. At the end, I describe a spring day when I’d been trying to work on a short story but my attention kept being drawn to the world outside:

“I gave up the illusion of writing and sat in the garden. The redstarts darted and swooped, a pair of tanagers flew by, so close to me I felt the slight breeze they stirred; a hummingbird buzzed my red-shirted shoulder. My eyes flicked around trying to catch glimpses of brilliance. It felt difficult to return to the computer then, but I did, if only to record the experience of sitting with all that vibrant life winging around me. I felt blessed in some way and humbled, although those words are too intense somehow, too grand for what was a small experience, one morning, that’s all, in which I chose to be in the pulsing present moment. In the end, that’s all there is. I throw a hunk of clay on the wheel and slowly move it toward center. I rest my hands on the keyboard and write about what I’m living.”

Listen and let go

I seem to be blessed with the earworms I need to hear. “Today is a bright new day,” sung in tight three-part harmony, circled round and round in my brain as I woke this morning. It took me a minute to remember the song and the singers, then I placed it as a YouTube video I watched a few days ago. With the refrain softly circling in the background, I lingered in bed, cat snuggled under my chin, until I heard the coffee pot click on.

Coffee in hand, I moved to the couch where I looked out the front window at cloudy sky, green bushes and trees, a splash of pink crabapple blossom in the distance. Birds darted through the inkberry bushes, landing briefly on the feeder that I will soon take down.

Today is a bright new day.

The lawn is getting shaggy, spotted with dandelions—I need to mow. I don’t aspire to a weedless expanse of emerald green. My lawn is a mix of various grasses and weeds, including the dandelions that are springing up in their glorious yellow. When I first moved into my house I dutifully dug up the dandelions, just as my then next door neighbor did. I would see her crouched in her yard, digging out the long taproots and flinging the plants into a bucket. But I soon gave up on dandelion eradication and chose to welcome them as a sign of spring.

Gray skies have now turned to rainy skies. Lawn mowing will wait. I’m not an exacting or precise mower. I mow around the violets blooming in the side yard and the clumps of forget-me-nots that have seeded mid lawn. One summer I left a big patch of clover that the bees were feasting on. I take different paths around the yard each time I mow. Sometimes I take a freeform approach, circling and weaving, spiraling inward until I can stand in one place and push back and forth a few times and be done. Other times I revel in straight vertical or horizontal lines. No matter what pattern emerges on a particular day I always use the mowing as a time to check out what’s happening in the garden, pausing periodically to pull up a tall weed or simply admire the flowering quince or smell the budding lilacs as I brush under them.IMG_1001

 

Today is a bright new day.

In recent weeks, as the world feels increasingly perilous, as people close to me struggle with illness and depression, and as I edge toward a major change in my own life, I’ve alternated between bopping along on an even keel and then, bam, sliding down into sadness and anxiety. One day, driving home after work, I found myself inhabiting a fearful, pain-filled fantasy that my active imagination elaborated and embroidered, before I caught myself and shifted my focus outward: there’s the sycamore tree that has stood in that spot for hundreds of years, there’s a bank of tulips, a crabapple in full bloom, a dogwood.

My mood lightened and I resisted the pull back into the depths. Later, I keyed up a Tara Brach meditation which focuses on sounds. Guided by her calm voice, I listened to the here and now sounds, the overhead fan on the porch, the family talking next door, a dog barking, my cat meowing, the rumble of my tummy, the tight, sore muscle in my back, the worry that tugged at me. I listened but didn’t linger, and slowly my perspective shifted. I remembered to take things one step at a time, moment after moment, to stay anchored in the present. To listen and let go.

Today is a bright new day.

 

What dazzles you?

Small glimmers of light, days of sun in the midst of ongoing wintry weather.

Early morning. I’m sleepy after waking early to the cat’s cries, cat feet treading up my body, cat nose sniffing my face. I get up, make the coffee, and lounge on the couch. At the bird feeder out front, cardinals, wrens, finches dart in and out and sometimes perch, waiting their turn.

Afternoon. Lunch with friends on a bright day. We want to sit outside but there are no tables available so we sit on a glassed in porch, looking out at the brightness, the sun, the wind. In a few months there will be flowers. Now the people are flowers, families, lovers, friends turning their faces to the sun. We talk, I dip my cheese laden bread into tomato soup, drink iced lemon ginger tea. We walk back to our cars, wind whipping my hair across my face, pause by our cars to continue the conversation, wind, sun, friends.

Later another friend and I head out for a walk but are stopped by the wind, stronger IMG_0227now, requiring effort to walk into it. Still bright. Still sun. We detour to a garden shop. Look at row after row of plants, tender, small, green, earth smelling. We think about buying pansies but decide to wait. My friend buys a basil plant, thinking summer, thinking tomatoes, thinking pesto. On to another garden store, the pull toward summer strong in us now. We buy dahlia tubers, imagining strong stems, big blossoms, bouquets on porch tables. Last year the rabbits ate my dahlias when they first came up but I’ll try again and if I end up feeding the rabbits, so be it.

What dazzles me? I want to say life dazzles me. I can feel those words forming in my fingertips, ready to appear on screen, but that’s more a wish than a truth. Life does dazzle me, when I let it in—the moments, snippets, breaths, in and out, in and out.