Thursday, February 19, 2015

Grief is a Moment


Writing morning pages is supposed to help me lead a healthy creative life, according to Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way. Grief has affected my creativity. I'm more reluctant to write on personal projects that don't necessarily have an immediate pay-off versus projects that have a client attached to them. More money would be nice and give me a buffer I don't currently have.

But this allusion of security is a false prospect. If I have all that I need in the moment – my wits, my health, a warm place to call home, food to eat – then everything else should be superfluous. Everything else, including my pets, furniture, fancy clothes, a closet full of shoes, jewelry, my car, books, smart phone, all just extras. Props for the real living. If I'm not happy in the moment, then all of those things, even if they are the finest items of their kind in the world, will not make me happier.

Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days in the woods and figured that out for us.

On the evil-twin flipside, studies show that people who live without financial strain are generally happier. This makes some sense if money is a constant worry, but I don't necessarily have severe financial strain. If I reallocate resources – toss out my phone or downsize my vehicle – that would improve my ability to travel more or have an emergency fund (other than my credit card).

But this idea of being 100 percent secure is a falsehood. Death teaches me this. Death comes whether you have your car paid off or a life insurance policy in place. Death comes whether you've finished writing your will or your novel, or have sent your kids out into the world. Because death is definitive, it makes forming future plans feel foolish. It's not like I'm throwing up my hands entirely and indulging chocolate cake everyday (though I have announced to my daughters that I will do so upon turning 75), but the finality and inevitability of this breathing existence puts everything else under a different lightbulb.

Should the small stuff be elevated to the level of “precious”? Breath consciously, for it could be my last? That sounds ridiculous, but the idea behind it -- being conscious of the stuff we take for granted -- does not.

My youngest daughter wanted to go on a walk in the freezing snow one night this week. I didn't immediately say yes. Quite the opposite, my motherly knee-jerk thoughts were: Absolutely not! There's no way that's going to happen! But then I thought, really what's the harm? It's just cold. No one was out on our street. She rarely expresses a desire to take a walk, and it's a plea-fest to get her to take the dog. So, I told her to bundle up, scarf, mittens, hat, heaviest coat.

She was gone for a long while. I worried. Then I saw her. Standing motionless on the sidewalk, looking at the snowy street. She was in the moment.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Writing Through Grief

Does writing make me see things I haven't seen? It certainly brings up old feelings. If I write about my dead husband, I feel the same emotions boil up that accompanied certain life events. Sometimes, the memories just simmer. When you remember the dead, the dead return in your cerebral cortex and jog the shit out of your nervous system.

I've watched other grievers. At my grief counseling class, we wear the black G under our shirts rather than on top. We are the secret Legion of the Grievers, and we choose to grieve, mostly without fanfare. We each drive ourselves to a class, which takes tremendous energy for active grievers. People who don't seek help after a death in the family may choose not to grieve. They stuff. I'd like to stuff. It just doesn't work that way. For me, anyway. The grief comes whether I'm feeling good that day, or whether I've gotten work done, or whether the sun is out, whether the birds are chirping, as they are outside my window this cold morning in February.

Almost all of the grieving moments and days for me come first with the deep realization that my husband is gone. Gone in the permanent way. Death is the ultimate definition of permanent. This is the permanent gone of infinity and prophetic biblical proportion. It has impressed upon me a lesson that has changed my perception of life, which is that the surest fact of life is death. Even the most privileged among us, the One Percent, will die. They get it in the end, too.

So, what does an intelligent, 47-year-old college-educated mother of two do with this kind of information? Outside of the obvious – that it makes me more than a little dark-minded – it makes me partly despise conventional ways of living. I no longer lead a conventional life. Conventional as in a husband, two kids, and a dog (now a cat). A mortgage, a car payment, a career of some sort, a vacation every once in a while. It makes it difficult sometimes for me to spend time with people who live conventional lives. I feel cheated. There's a lie in the promise of an ordinary life.

If I choose to continue processing through the lense of futility, what's there? I do believe it is a choice to harbor futility. It is a thought pattern that could just as easily be replaced, in time, with another. Futility is unpleasant to share a bed with. It makes everything look like not much at all. It takes your hand and constantly squeezes in Morse Code: What's the point? I am told, yes, this is grief. This is what grief does. It is normal. It will pass.
Cooper_Chapel_Arkansas
Cooper Chapel, Bella Vista, Ark.

Mind you, I don't feel stuck. I get up and participate. I don't wallow under the covers cuddling futility all day in my pajamas then at dinner time, shuffle toward the frig in my gaudy slippers past a mound of dirty dishes. I've never done that. Don't imagine I will.

So, I shift. If I no longer fit the convention, then my life is different. It is not ordinary. I can choose to see it as not ordinary in a positive way. And in doing so, I can believe my life is extraordinary, if I choose.

If I choose. If I choose.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

She Grows

One helluva masterpiece.
The ruler used to be my measurement. A door jamb and a ruler.

Her eyes, encircled in dark mascara and eyeliner, sparkle at me. It finally comes to pass. Three states, six schools, and countless boxes of macaroni and cheese later, her skirts are shorter, her tights are tighter, her ambitions, grander.

The day she came home, long ago, my head ripened with thoughts of firsts. First night of unbroken sleep (please soon), first bite of real food (mush), first word (no). The days widened and narrowed. She walked and talked. I followed and worried. I watched my independence give way to parental obligation. I left a job; she threw a ball; I took less and less notice of the news and more and more notice of her schooling. She grew and my world shrunk.

You throw yourself into something or it’s not worth doing. I would teach her: Quitting left everyone unhappy.

“Take that soccer ball and KICK it!”

“Read or there’s no TV tonight!”

“Play with your sister or else!”

“And, for God’s sake, share!”

There’s taking in the act of giving. If there’s no receiver, giving doesn’t work. Her young hands and open mind took from me. The good parts mostly. But, also the guilt. Have I done enough? And, the resentment. You take too much.

Her nose touches mine without her standing on tiptoes. I pretend to shrink and use a cane today, in my best granny voice, joking, “Don’t worry about me, my pretty. Just hand me my shawl.”

She looks away now more than looks up. She’s taller by an inch and a half. It’s a mountain to me, a skyscraper of “I hope...” and “I dream...” She uses her assertive sense of self as a metaphysical yardstick. Her eyes reflect words she doesn’t speak: “I’m done taking from you.” But, me, knowing, can see the marks I’ve already made.

Every birthday of mine growing up, my dad used a ruler to measure me against the door jamb in the kitchen. Pencil in hand, he’d stand up my brother and me and lay the ruler flat on our heads to the back of the wood. There, he’d mark the spot and write our age, making a scritch-scratch of lead on the wood.

I look him in the eye today.