A TALE OF TWO STICKS: The “Perfect” One vs. “What Works”

A sad story with a happy ending.

A long-time admirer contacted me earlier this month, looking for the perfect wall hanging for their home. After many emails and sent images, they decided on a framed fragment:

One of three framed fiber “fragments” in a series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But they had their heart set on a wall HANGING. Would I be willing to turn this into one?

Well, sure! The framed version would be harder to ship, I haven’t made hangings in awhile, and this would be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. A practice piece, if you will.

It took many, many more hours of work than I’d anticipated. Still, if I charged by the hour, all of my work  would have to sell for several thousand dollars. Which didn’t seem fair….

I added a backing to the fragment, created a hanger for the back, and searched my extensive stick collection for the perfect stick. It has to be the right length to work with, a shape that works with each fragment, etc.

Surprisingly (not!), I always find only one stick that meets my needs.

I found it! A beach-combing find from the Sonoma coast. I test all my sticks before I use them in a piece, to make sure they aren’t too brittle or fragile. This one passed the test–I thought.

The Perfect Stick.

 

 

 

 

 

It was already worn smooth by waves, it had beautiful branches, it sanded up easily. After waxing and buffing it to a soft gleam, I got to work drilling holes for the ties that would secure the fiber fragment to it, the beaded side “drapes”, and the cord to hang it all with.

For some reason, my new power drill didn’t work very well. Maybe my drill bits are dull? So I used my little hand drill (pin vise) to make the holes. Yep, more hours….

I put almost 8 hours on drilling the holes, stringing the color-coordinated glass beads for the drapes, attaching the fragment to the stick, and adding the beads that adorn the hanger. I’m pretty fussy about the beading. I use a lot of antique glass trade beads in my work, and many of them have really big holes. I have a stash of smaller beads I use to fill the holes so the beads set evenly.

After it was all put together, I picked it up to take a photo…..

And the stick broke.

It broke where I’d drilled a hole. Fortunately, it was a clean break. I was able to glue it back together (with construction adhesive!), restring that part, and wound some cord around it for support. Part of my aesthetic is creating the look of a well-worn, often mended piece of art. So it fit right in!

I clamped the repair and let it sit a full 24 hours, like the instructions said. Came back to the studio, gently tested the repair–good!

I picked it up to photo it. And it broke in my hand again.

This time, the wood shattered. So I was back to square one. (Okay, square three, but it sure felt like ‘one’.)

It took awhile, but I found another, completely different stick that I loved.

The new perfect stick!

It has a sad history. Bark beetles are highly-destructive, destroying millions of acres of forests.

 

 

 

 

And yet, the damaged wood is hauntingly beautiful.

In New Hampshire, I looked for beaver-chewed sticks. The chew-markes look like writing, strange writing to be sure. They became part of my story, echoing the mystery of the cave paintings of Lascaux in my art: A message that was not addressed to us, a message we cannot read.

The trails made by bark beetles echo that story.

I’ve collected a lot of their chewed sticks from the coast, too. The good part is, the beetles are long gone and probably long-dead, too.

I didn’t realize the stick looked like one of my carved pods until I took this picture. The pod just happened to be sitting on the counter. Fate? Kismet? Lucky chance???

I sanded the stick carefully, and wiped it clean. I painted it black to back-fill the little chewed channels, then wiped off the excess. Then waxed it with brown Brio wax, and buffed it, then drilled more holes.

 

Finally, it was done!

The finished piece. Finally!

Today I’ll find the right-sized box to pack it up and ship it to its happy new owner. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought, but I never regret a profound learning experience. Well. I regret them in the moment. But I’ll get over it.

My little journey from “the perfect stick” to one that many people would consider as a tragedy (destruction of national forests) and trash (a bug did this? WTF!!!) has me thinking again about my art process and my stories.

I obsess about getting everything exactly right, in an imperfect way. Asymmetrical yet balanced. Ordered color palettes.

One of my most powerful insights, in my life and in my art, is recognizing when something is ‘good enough’, and letting go of perfection. (As a wise woman once told me just before I began my hospice volunteer training, “When we are a perfectionist, we are ‘full of knowing’, and nothing new can come in.”) (Thank you Quinn!) (Another gift: I didn’t know she’d started a new blog until I linked to hers here.)

We all have visions of what that ‘perfect’ thing is. The perfect job. The perfect marriage. The perfect home.

Then there’s reality. There are the slog jobs, the times in a relationship when things can feel wonky, and homes? Renting here in Northern California, it’s whatever one will let you have pets….

Yet even in the worst of times and places, there is something of value.

Insights. ‘Aha!’ moments. Healing. Reconnection. Beauty. New ways to retell old stories. Seeing our loved ones for who they are, instead of the perfect person we sometimes expect them to be. Learning to see ourselves the same way….

Sometimes the ‘perfect’ needs to make way for something bigger and better, more human. Sometimes, we need to make way for something else.

And sometimes, it makes way for a tiny little beetle, with its own way of creating a powerful story.

 

 

GRIEVING

I’m supposed to be writing my next Fine Art Views article, but I got sidelined early.

A dear friend posted an article by an author dealing with the devastating loss of their parents. This friend was going through the same experience, and it was hard.

Many chimed in with similar sentiments. Then someone read the article as saying this was “the worst” felt unnecessarily competitive. They felt there is no “worst”, there is just “devastating.” The original author of the article never said those exact words, but that is obviously how they felt. And it could be the worst for them (the author of the article), because usually our first death is the loss of our mom or dad, and it’s big. They just haven’t gotten to their next “worst death” yet. This commenter I call “not necessarily the worst” or “NNTW.”)

Someone else agreed, that not everyone has “stellar families”, as in “not my parents”(“NMP”).

And then someone else felt the need to chastise those folks. They are the (“rebuking commenter” or “RC”).

And here is where I say “stop”.  Just…stop.

Here’s what I wrote, expanded and styled with protection for privacy:

Welp, you are ALL correct.
I “heard” what (NNTW commenter, whom I know very well) “heard” when I read the article. I know  the original poster and I am very close to NTW, who was a hospice volunteer before they became an eldercare social worker. They’ve had a lot of experience with grief, including their own major grief in the last couple years.

Both NNTW and I know the article resonated with the original poster (“OP”), just as it resonated differently with NNTW.

(“Not my parents” or “NMP” commenter)  is correct in that not everyone had a loving, healing relationship with their parents, (and boy, do I appreciate their comment!)
And yet…. I am not a trained professional, but as a hospice volunteer and grief workshop leader, I know that even complicated deaths (murder, suicide, addition, abuse, etc.) can devastate us. We know we will never have resolution, we know there is no “fixing”, and we will always wonder whether we could have/should have done something differently.
My Aunt Edith sent me a poem years ago, after she lost her parents and her husband (no children.) It said we expect to lose our parents (with the additional pain that it foreshadows our own mortality), and we know either our partner or we will go first. No one expects the loss of a child. (Thank you for acknowledging that, RC.)
Rather than assessing which loss is the most painful, I prefer this more universal acknowledgment of grief.
Acting on this article, I respectfully ask that no one judge NMW when you don’t know their grief, nor NMP for theirs.
We are all broken, and we all seek solace.  As Roseanne Cash wrote in her book, COMPOSED: A Memoir
You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…
All we can hope for is that our grief eventually “softens” so we can bear it a little more easily. That takes time, a lot of time, more than our culture accepts as “reasonable”.
And it will never disappear entirely.

Grief is not a contest. It’s okay to have feelings when it seems someone else’s grief seems to invalidate ours. It’s okay to envy someone whose grief is more “expected” and the relationship they had with that person is based on love instead of pain. It’s good to recognize, as RC did, that losing a child, or children, who never got to even to be in the world, someone we were sure would outlive US, can dash all our hopes and dreams.
Because it doesn’t seem to fill the “natural order” of the ends of our relationships.  We unconsciously believe that the oldest people will die first. Not the ones who are here with us, in step with us. Certainly not the who just got here, nor the ones who never ‘legally’ made it all the way here to begin with.
But life always shows us that none of that is true. We have no control over who dies first. Every loss is painful in its own unique way.
Grief sucks.
And the only good thing about it is, it means there was love. Love is part of being human.
Or it means we craved love and acceptance, yet never got it, and we will never get over that. Craving love is human.
It means even losing the ones that hurt us can destroy us. Knowing it can’t be fixed is hard. Learning how hard it is, is human.
Grief is so powerful, all we can do is to hope that things will get better, to hope it will get softer. Hoping for hope is human.
It means we have a heart, and when it is broken, we suffer greatly. Having a broken heart is human.

All of this is overwhelming.
And yet we persist. Which is also human, and our superpower.
Our other superpower? Listening to John Pavlovitz and Roseanne Cash
Learning to be kind, even when no one is looking.

ANGRY GIRL

Forgiveness is an act of commitment.

Forgiveness is psychological, not moral.

I’ve just discovered this incredible blog by Nick Wignall. It has already given me clarity on some of my “life issues”, good lessons in this confusing yet beautiful school of life.

The most recent one I’ve read is about anger, and consequently, forgiveness, both tricky issues to deal with even as an adult. This article wrapped up a lot of confusing emotions and tied ’em up with a beautiful bow. The following is a summary of what struck me hard, but be sure to check out the article as written, too. Because something different might resonate for YOU.

Last year, both of my parents died about 7 months apart, and I made four separate flights back home. One each to say goodbye, and one for their respective memorial services.

I had already done a lot of work surrounding forgiveness. Long story short, there were many times where I was not protected as a young person, and I suffered from not only the damage done to me, but also suffered from the lack of compassion from those who could have done better. There were also times where I was kicked out of the family because I was so vile and despicable. I had to come crawling back, not sure what I had done nor why it had been met with such an extreme response.  And, like so many families, we were never–NEVER–supposed to talk about it, ever.

When a number of years ago, I realized my mother was now living with dementia, I knew I would never hear the words I was so desperate to hear. My work as a hospice volunteer taught me so much.  How to sit with a client who is nearing the end of their journey. To understand the difference between “fixing/curing” and healing.

I realized she could no longer be my mother. But I could still be her daughter. I saw her as a person who deserved my kindness, and compassion, and that helped me deal with both losses without losing my mind.

It also planted the seeds of forgiveness. It took time for me to really understand what true forgiveness is, but it started there.

I was still living with anger, though. Many members of our family had different experiences, due to our ages and…er…experiences. It felt like a contest for ages: Whose version was “right”, and whose was “wrong”.  How do we forgive people who are so sure we are doing it wrong? Especially when they never inquire what our own experience was like? Especially when we DID share those experiences, but remember them differently? Where is the truth when all we have is our own perception to rely on?

Nick covers forgiveness in the same way I finally reached it. Forgiveness does not mean “forgetting what happened” (because it is impossible to forget the pain). And it doesn’t mean the perpetrators are “off the hook”, and you have welcome them wholeheartedly back into your life. It doesn’t mean there has to be reconciliation–we are free to choose to protect ourselves, and we don’t have to accept “excuses” that are often at our expense. (For the record, “I’m sorry you got so upset” is not an apology.)

It’s about recognizing that other people are not under our control. We can only control ourselves, and there’s even a limit to that.

That’s where the anger issue came into play, and I love how he framed it.

Again, lots of quote and part paraphrasing:

Anger is a “positive” emotional feeling–we feel that we’re right and they are wrong. But it’s really an anti-depressant with potentially nasty side effects, and the consequences are often negative. LOVE THIS!

Anger helps eliminate sadness, boredom, feeling helpless, etc. It’s a crutch that makes us passive. It creates “opportunity cost”: Sucking up time and energy we could devote to learning better behaviors. It also reinforces our deep memories of the wrongs done to us. (Yup!)

The right approach, according to Nick, is to validate that anger. But don’t feed it. 

The way there is acceptance–not for that person’s actions/inaction, but to acknowledge and accept we cannot change the past.

Thinking we can change the past helps us feel more in control, but it’s an illusion.

As I read this, I began to understand where my own residual anger comes from:

I hate it when other people diminish my pain. “Oh, that’s not what they meant, get over it!” “I don’t remember it that way, so that means you’re remembering it wrong.” When compatriots agree with me “in theory” but still defend “the group”.

And the reason I ghost them, I now realize, is because it feels like the only thing I can control. I can avoid any further interactions, and avoid the snark, the disbelief, the snide comments, or subtle “betrayal” of not standing with you even though they know exactly what it was like for you

So I’m still learning about forgiveness, and I’m beginning to distrust my anger, especially as it often serves only to feed the flame, or grow the sadness.

The last take-away from this article is, forgiveness is not ONE decision. We have to get there over and over again until the process gets “learned”. And it won’t “feel good” in and of itself. Because not only can we not control other people, we can’t control how we feel. Feelings are part of us, forever.

We may be able to soften the feeling. (The common phrase in a grief support group I attended was about how grief never disappears, but it does “gets softer” as time passed.) But it will always be there. Feelings are us. (Apologies to Toys R Us….)

All we can control is our actions.

This was exactly what I needed to hear.

For years now, I’ve written about the power of our choices. 

We all have a lizard brain (aka “monkey mind”, “reptilian brain”, etc.) But when we learned to recognize those instinctive responses (anger?) to perceived danger (a rude customer, a snide family member), we can choose how we respond. We can choose “better”.

I am grateful that I found the way to continue the work of true forgiveness. I am grateful to find a better understanding of how my anger does not serve me, but I can never make it go away. I can choose to truly understand that in the short run, righteous indignation feels really good, but does not serve me in the long run.

And whether I have decades yet to live, or only a few hours, this is who I want to be.

This is who I can choose to be in the world.

LIFE, DEATH, FAME, FORTUNE, AND ART: What’s In It For YOU?

(This article was first published on September 1, 2018 on Fine Art Views)

It’s the little things that matter, and the story.

(10 minute read)

My Mom died earlier this year. Soon after, my pregnant daughter lost her first baby. And earlier this week, I took a redeye flight to Michigan to say goodbye to my Dad.

I got there just in time to say the things I needed to say. And although he was not “conscious” in our sense of the word, I know he heard me.

My hospice volunteer experience taught me so much. All of that was visible in my dad’s last few hours on this planet.

My dad was a long-standing, prominent figure in my little hometown. From a co-op dairy project started by my grandfather that eventually turned into one of only two family restaurants in town, (which also provided jobs to dozens, if not hundreds of teens and adults over the years), to his years of volunteering, (serving on school boards, supporting our church), socializing (visiting elderly former employees in their last years, meeting almost weekly with friends for bridge, for potluck dinners, for parties, hosting all his kids’ weddings in his backyard), he wove a winding path through our small farming community.

As life approaches the end, it gets smaller. Friends and family moved away, or died. The town got bigger, so more people were ‘strangers’. Eventually, his world was only as big as the assisted living staff, family members who remained nearby, the people he ate dinner with every night.

And of course, it all ends in a hospital bed, surrounded by those who loved him, holding his hand, whispering in his ear, saying a prayer.

His passing was peaceful, with little pain, and not much suffering, unlike those he leaves behind.

But this is how it goes. And this was as good as it gets.

Now for the next thread: Last month, a friend in New Hampshire told me of a friend of hers who found one of my horse sculptures at a yard sale.

Put a pin in that. (For those who don’t know what this means, it alerts you that I intend to circle back and connect all these little “bits” on this “bulletin board.)

I’ve just finished watching a Netflix comedy special “Nannette”, created by Hannah Gadsby, an Australia comedian who identifies as lesbian. Her comedy was searing, and hilarious, honest, and gut-wrenchingly powerful.

There were so many words of wisdom she shared as she told the hardest stories of her life, stories she had edited for pure laughs in her ten-years-plus career. This time, she said, she has to tell the whole truth. Because without it, we cannot truly understand her pain, the shame and humiliation she suffered because of something she did not choose, and how she rose and grew as a human being through her art.

She is, like me, also an art history major. And she spoke deeply and clearly about that, too.

Put a pin there.

I struggle writing for Fine Art Views. I mean, I LOVE writing for FAV! I love the people I’ve met through my columns, I love the respectful discourse, I love it when I see I’ve helped lift people’s hearts, if only for a day, by encouraging them to make their art.

I’ve been a professional artist for over 20 years now. I work hard at what I do. I’ve created a solid body of work. I’ve entered, and been accepted, into prestigious organizations, some of the top fine craft shows in the country, and sold work to some prominent people. I’ve educated myself about marketing, display, and customer service. I have a following on my blog, and a good-sized email list of customers.

But I’m not sure I can call myself a “successful artist”. At least not by the definition many people assign to that term.

In only a handful of years did I ever break the $20,000 income for the year. So, technically, I am at poverty level. (Fortunately, society values my husband’s work a heckuva lot more.)

So when a reader wrote recently asking for a favor, saying they knew I was busy because I am so successful, I felt a little embarrassed. Yes to the busy. Er…not so much for the “successful”.

And sometimes, although I know (and follow) most of the practices (that work for me) to advertise and market and sell my work, I can’t “prove” my credentials (no art degree! No museum shows!)

So who am I to advise you on marketing?

Simple. I am a fellow traveler. I share what I’ve learned. It’s up to you to decide if it works for you, or not. I simply have to write about it. It’s part of my story. 

Also, to be easier on myself, it’s possible I will become a tremendously famous artist after I’m dead. Like Van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson, whose poetry was never published in her lifetime.

I will never ever say that following my advice will guarantee you fabulous sales. I don’t have a $2,000 “product” (course, book, seminar, etc.) to sell you  that promises to make you famous, or rich, or even make enough money for the babysitter so you can do shows. ((except a few eBooks running around $5 each that will help you get toxic people out of your sacred creative space, and how to improve your display.)

Of course, that illusion of artistic success (“Van Gogh is a brand, and look how much his paintings sell for! Branding is the key!”) is just that: An illusion. More on that….

Let’s pick up some of those pins.

In her performance, Gadsby quotes people who rave about Van Gogh’s fame, framing it as a rags-to-riches story. “He was broke, and crazy, and starving, and now look at him!”

“But he’s dead,” she replies quietly.

“Yeah, but he’s very successful!” they argue back. They offer more “assumptions” on why his work was not successful in his lifetime, and why it is now.

She goes on. Van Gogh wasn’t “ahead of his time”. He was a Post-Impressionist painter at the height of Post-Impressionism. People didn’t “not buy” his work because his style was inaccessible.

He lived with severe mental health issues. He couldn’t “network” because he was extremely difficult to deal with. People crossed the street to avoid him. His “brand” was “crazy”.

His art did not spring from his illness. He sought help from psychiatrists, he was medicated, and some of his vibrant color choices were actually visual side effects from the medications he was on. He made his work despite his mental illness, because it meant so much to him.

Gadsby, with words that broke my heart, says, “We have Van Gogh’s sunflowers not because he suffered, but because he had a brother who loved him.”

And here’s where the Dad pin comes in.

My Dad was not a famous person. He was not extremely talented. He was not wealthy. He was not “artistic” (though he took up woodworking in his retirement.)

He was simply a good man, who provided for his family any way he could, because family was important to him. Someone who always did his best. All of us in the room knew he loved us, and showed it, the way he had been taught to show it.

And as he left this world, I know this for sure: He knew we loved him, too.

Now the back to the art marketing pin.

You can follow all the marketing advice in the world. You can brand yourself just like cowboys and steers. (That’s where the word comes from.) You can strive to get into those perfect galleries, those top shows, be featured in elegant magazines, and win Best-in-Show so often, the committee will eventually have to take you off the ballot every other year so that other, just as commendable artists will have a shot.

It will guarantee you nothing.

And even if it brings you wealth, and fame, in the end, we will still all end up in a hospital bed in our bedroom, working our way to our last breath. Hopefully, at peace, without pain, surrounded by love….

And with luck, no regrets.

No one came to tell my Dad what a great restaurant he ran. (It was very modest, not an haute cuisine thing. Just home-cooking, great ice cream, and pie.) No one came to tell him how his wealth and power inspired them. (He had neither.) No one ever rushed to grab his autograph, or have a selfie taken with him. There is no history book that will refer to him, ever.

People tell us he gave them their first job. People tell us he was generous with his time. People tell us he made them laugh.

As artists, we have a unique gift. We get to choose every step of the work we do. We do it our way. We make it our way. We get to choose how well we do it, we have some choice in where we show it, and who sees it (even more with the Internet), and if we’re lucky, we learn how to best connect with the people who will become our customers. We choose how to promote it, how to sell it, how to advertise it.

But none of these efforts can guarantee us success. Nothing and no one can ensure we will make a living, or even make very much money at all with it.

Hannah Gadsby suffered for years because of her trauma. She transformed that into a healing experience we can all benefit from. She shares what truly connects us: telling our stories; and what most assuredly will destroy us: anger, and hate.

Art is how we tell our stories. The medium does not matter. Stories can be told through oil paintings, pastels, clay, and stone. Polymer clay, voice, music, film, books, plays, food, and comedy. Relief work, healing, teaching, mending, any human effort that brings more light, and love, into the world counts as creativity to me.

Yet even this may not be enough to assure our place in the world, now, nor for all time.

We have no control over our stories, while we live nor when we’re gone. As I looked through the boxes of photographs my siblings had gathered together, I realized I, as the oldest, was the only one who knew some (but not most) of the people featured, the places, the events, depicted in them. People leave before us, and at the end, we may not leave that much behind. Eventually, no one will care. Life goes on.

All that matters, at the end, is that we do it. That we do the work of our heart. That we fit it in somewhere in our life, whether it’s full-time, part-time, down-time or me-time. It only matters that we do not leave this world with regrets.

All that matters is that we do our best. That we make friends, and cherish family. That we do what we think is right. That we give solace to those who suffer, that we feed those who are hungry, that we home those who are lost. That we forgive those who have hurt us (truly forgive, which means freeing ourselves from the pain they bring us), and heal ourselves, even though we can’t fix it or change them. (I’m still learning about true forgiveness. Not there yet! Getting closer….)

All that matters is that we do the work that heals us, so we can be in the world. It’s the only way we can truly tell our story.

As for the yard sale find, I was a tiny bit dismayed. So soon? My work is considered “worthless” so soon? No Van Gogh moment of discovery?? Wah!

And yet….

At a yard sale, someone found something that spoke to them. They bought it. It brings them joy. They treasure it. They tried to find the artist, and they did. I have a name now.

I myself have quite a collection of thrift shop finds, flea market treasures, and other “uncurated” works of art, craft, and otherwise. Some are signed, but because of the time they were created, there’s not much to learn about the artist. Others are anonymous, but no less treasured.

I love them all, They bring me joy.

That is what I choose to focus on today. What matters, at the end. Fame, fortune, cannot survive. We will not live forever. Even love may fade into obscurity.

But maybe a piece of our life will survive to raise another’s heart. In a song, in a book, a life we save, a bowl, a painting. A little horse sculpture.

Make your best work.

Put it out into the world. Make it visible. Make it accessible.

Do your best.

Then let it go.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE: Liar, Liar…

There’s a big difference between the “lies” that heal, and the truths that hurt.

I have a friend who took care of her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, until he died a year ago. It was very hard for her, especially since both of them worked closely with families who experience loss, death, and devastation.

You can gain a lot of insight working with others on this hard, sometimes lonely, journey at the end of life. But you don’t get a free pass just because you’ve witnessed this journey with others. In fact, it seems like it’s even harder, if you’re ‘in the field’, when it happens to you. Maybe we feel like we should know how to ‘do it perfectly’. But when it happens to us, there’s no such thing as ‘doing it perfectly’. There is just ‘getting through’.

Caring for a person with Alzheimers, and other cognitive issues, is especially difficult. Their view of the world, their resources for dealing with it, are changed drastically. The old method was to constantly fight for reality–yours! Maybe, with enough reinforcement, we could ‘force’ them back into our world. Tell them the same thing over and over and over, and eventually, they’ll get it.

Sadly, this approach does not work. In fact, it creates more stress, more anxiety, in the person.  People often still have an emotional/social self–they sense they are ‘doing it wrong’. When they are constantly reminded of this, things go downhill pretty fast. Anxiety leads to agitation, anger, and even agression.

Current strategy is to ‘go along’ with the client. “I’m supposed to be at work!” they exclaim. “I have to get ready!” You may choose to ‘go along’–“Sure! But we have to have breakfast first.” “Or, “Sure, we could do that! What would you like to wear to work today? Let’s get dressed. OH…you might want to take a shower first!” “Or you gently ‘remind’ them that today is a work holiday. So maybe they’d like to go for a drive in the country instead?”

This can be difficult, though, because it doesn’t feel ‘honest’. The hardest part of caring for clients with cognitive issues? “The lies!” my friend exclaimed. “Our relationship was based on trust, and respect, and honesty. And then, to keep him calm and at ease, I had to lie to him, over and over and over, every single day!” She felt she had worn away the last thing that connected them, by lying to him.

The best advice I can share with you today is to point you to a person who embraced this situation himself, and wrote about it.  For insight into these strategies, I highly recommend the website Alzheimer’s Reading Room. Bob DeMarco went there and back again, into the world of Alzheimer’s while caring for his mother.

His insights are filled with integrity, insight, and simplicity. He stresses that to create a new, rich relationship with your loved one living with cognitive issues, you need to go to their world. We need to look at their point of view, and understand where they’re coming from. The person we used to know is changed, due to major changes in their brain and cognition. We cannot hold them to who they once were, to what they could have been. We have to work with who they are, and what they’re doing now.

We tend to think in terms of absolutes: Good and evil. Right and wrong. Truth and lies. Even the grey areas of white lies and fibs can feel overwhelming when you have to practice it over and over, day after day after day.

Alzheimer’s is not a world of absolutes. For a person in this world, it is a place of ever-changing reality, as memories fade, as dreams flood into waking time, as it gets harder and harder to understand what’s what.

DeMarco says, over and over: You have to go to their world. You have to see through their eyes, understand through their experience, work with their fears and anxiety.

I was going to go into a big long spiel about lying vs. going to Alzheimer’s world, and kids and Santa Claus/Easter Bunny/Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there’s just this: When we talk to kids about death and dying, sickness, bad accidents, we frame it so it meets them where they are. A four-year-old grieving for a dead pet needs something different than a 12-year-old, etc. The same when we are caring for/living with/working with people with cognitive issues.

A friend told me how she struggled what to tell her dad, who had dementia, about her mom/his wife, who had just died. “When he asks where she is, do I tell him the truth”, she agonized. “Then he reels with the shock and weeps. Two hours later, he asks me again. I don’t want to lie, but telling him the truth is like torturing him with harsh sorrow, over and over, and over again. It’s new to him every time.”

Eventually, when he asked, she told him she (her mom, his wife) was ‘away’. No, no one was sure just when she’d be back, but she was okay, and sent her love, and they would see her again ‘in awhile’. This reassured him, until the next time he asked.

This went on for months, until one day, he asked her hesitantly, “I have a feeling Mom isn’t coming back. Am I right?” She then told him yes, but again, gently, simply agreeing. And reassuring him that she (the mom) was okay, they would be okay, and that she (the daughter) was there for him. He wept, but was not devastated. The question faded gradually away.

Understand they can no longer be in our world, but we can visit them in theirs. Have compassion. Understand there is a difference between lying to manipulate, to gain something you don’t deserve, or to avoid consequences of your actions–and meeting them where they are, with love, with patience, with respect and kindness, in their world.

If your religion believes that God would never give someone more hardship than they can handle, then understand a person with dementia cannot handle hardship like they used to. Accommodate them.

It’s not easy–it never is.  The role of the caregiver can be lonely, and already so very, very hard. So please don’t agonize over having to ‘lie’. What you are really doing is not hurting someone  who cannot understand, or process, the hurt. The ‘lie’ you tell to create peace in someone’s heart who has no way to heal–to avoid giving them pain they cannot protect themselves from–that ‘lie’ is actually kind, compassionate, and healing.

So be kind to yourself, too. The only people who would judge you, just don’t know. (Yet.) The ones who know? Believe me, they understand. And they are supporting you in spirit, every step of the way.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE: Nobody Dies Alone (Not)

Recently California passed  Right to Die legislation, allowing the terminally-ill to seek their physician’s assistance in committing suicide.

Many people have valid arguments against this legislation. Almost everyone I’ve met who works in hospice and palliative care are dismayed. Too often, hospice is not called into such a situation until the last minute. Most hospice clients receive care for less than 14 days. More than half of those clients, less than a week. Many, if not most, of the issues that Right to Die legislation addresses, could be alleviated by hospice and palliative care, including patient comfort and support. Research shows that clients in hospice care live longer and suffer less than those in standard care.

But that’s not what moved me to write today. There was a letter to the editor from a grieving person, who provided round-the-clock care for their spouse until the very end. The person said hospice can’t do what they did–sit with their spouse until their loved one died.

Which, believe it or not, is not always a good thing.

Somehow, being with someone while they die has been synonymous with ‘best practice’. “Nobody dies alone!” And when people can’t be there for that final moment, they often feel a sense of failure and guilt.

Meanwhile, those of us who are involved in hospice care, notice something totally different. Something that we noticed in almost all our cases….

Most people die alone. And though obviously we cannot know what someone’s final thoughts are, it sure looks like their choice.

We’re often called on for what we call a ‘vigil’. There’s no one to sit with the person who seems to be actively dying–family members are out of state, or can’t be there 24/7. Volunteers sit with the client in shifts. But we never provide round-the-clock care. And that’s a good thing, because the truth is, sometimes people need that time to themselves, to choose when they would die.

Read that again: The circumstances where someone in hospice died was often so responsive to what was going on around them–even when they were unconscious or unable to respond–it looked like they’d chosen to leave at a specific time.

In the five years I served as a hospice volunteer, I saw many extremes in outcomes around this.

I had a client who was mobile, and aware, who had “months to live”, who died within a day of her own daughter (also her caretaker) being diagnosed with breast cancer. (Her daughter chose put her in respite care for the weekend–two days–just so she could process the news.) As if my client were saying, “I’ll be okay, but you need to take care of yourself now.”

I know two people, siblings, who sat with their dying parent all night. When it was one sibling’s turn, they fell asleep briefly.  And in that short span of time, their parent died. As if they were saying, “I love you, and I don’t want this to be your last memory of me.”

I know another client who died, again while a family sat holding their hand, asleep. It was the family member they’d had the most contentious relationship with. As if they were saying, “Please forgive me.”

Another client who had mere days, perhaps hours, to live, held on for over three weeks. Immobile, usually unresponsive, unable to eat nor drink anything except a few tablespoons of ice cream and soda during that time, yet they hung in there. One of their attendants, who’d become close with her, was expecting a baby. She was two weeks overdue. I believe my client was waiting for the baby to come.

I don’t know how many times I, and my fellow volunteers, someone would say to us, “We kept watch, we took turns, someone was there with them every day, every minute! They were never left alone! And then one night, on my shift, I went to the bathroom–I was only gone five minutes! And when I came back, they were gone. I still feel awful.”

The sense we are all left with is, sometimes there seems to be a choice, when to stay, and when to go.

Sometimes it seems obvious the person is dying doesn’t want their loved one to witness that.  For whatever reason, they wait until that tiny moment of time where they are alone–and they go.

Sometimes it seems they are waiting for someone–an out-of-state family member, a new baby–to arrive. They hang in there until the person either comes, or until the client can’t hold on any longer.

Sometimes it seems that they are waiting to hear something.  Perhaps someone who has to let go, someone who has to tell them, “It’s okay, it’s hard, but I’ll be okay. You can go”. Or for someone to say those four powerful statements: “I forgive you.” “Please forgive me.” “Thank you.” “I love you.”

So if this has happened to you, please don’t despair. There is no predicting how close someone is to death. Hospice and palliative care do the most good the sooner they can be brought in to provide services.

But even with the best of care, the best intentions, this was one of the most amazing, the most…okay, I’ll say it: miraculous thing I saw in hospice.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and it’s surprising difficult to write about. But it’s important.

How our loved one leaves us, is often their last gift to us.

 

 

 

GOMEZ SAYS GOODBYE

We have everything we need to know, right here in our hearts.

More musings on the grief writing workshop I teach at Home Healthcare and Community Services here in Keene, NH….

For each week of the class, there’s a central topic for our journaling or free writing exercise. Some topics allow us to talk about who we were, and where we are now after the death of a loved one. Some encourage us to remember them in a different way. Some acknowledge the difficult nature of our relationship with them. Some “point us toward home, so we can go there…” (A quote from DEAN SPANLEY, a remarkable, gentle and sweetly funny movie about death, grieving, and redemption.)

There’s one particularly powerful exercise we do in the writing workshop. It’s so powerful, I’m afraid I’ll give away the punchline. But it’s also so healing, it would be a sin not to share it with a wider audience….

It’s something I structured, sort of aim the sessions toward, so we get there at just the right time. Last week was the proper time.

I ask everyone to imagine the deceased in a place–it could be heaven, it could be nirvana, it could be in an alternate universe, it could even be in our dreams. It’s a place where they are safe, and loved, and happy. A place where they are fully healed, in mind, body and soul. A place where they are at their highest, most evolved self. A place where no matter what their faults or failings were, no matter how much they’ve already suffered or given, or loved, they are the best person we’ve always dreamed they could be.

“Write a letter,” I say to the class. “From them, to you.”

This always draws a lot of confusion and questions. I usually have to repeat it a few times. There are frowns, and pursed lips, and sighs.

Then the writing begins.

And then come the tears.

I am always astonished, when we finally share what we’ve written. It’s as if people have really stepped outside themselves, and delved into the heart of that person. The things we see, and recognize, and understand and finally accept, are incredible.

It’s a letting go of what could have been. It’s accepting what it was, and is. It allows hope to sprout the tiniest, most delicate green leaves.

And it lets the healing begin.

It’s never failed me, this exercise. I wrote about this the first time I did it, with a complicated death that had haunted me for decades.

I did it again last week with my beautiful cat Gomez.

It was a funny night to begin with. Three of us selected animals to write about. It felt a little disrespectful at first–People before animals, right? Except we were also accepting that the loss of a beloved pet can be just as rattling, especially since they are often the very thing that soothes us during other, larger losses.

And so we wrote a letter from our pets, to us.

In my opening sentence, I immediately saw how empathic this exercise really is. I wrote, “Dear kind lady….” Because, of course, Gomez would have no idea what my name was. And being a cat, he probably wouldn’t care.

Here’s the small miracle: All three of us did the same. Realized our pets don’t “know” our names. But they know who we are to them. One writer started her letter with “Dear Mom”, because that’s who her dog would think she was.

Here’s my letter from Gomez:

Dear kind lady,
When I saw you at the shelter with your child, I knew I was going home with you. I saw you go to each cage, check out each cat. I saw you trying to connect with each one.

“I want an older cat,” you said to the shelter person. “I want a cat who really really really needs a home.”

But none of those cats would play with you. They knew I was meant for you. They wouldn’t give you the time of day–they knew it was my turn.

Finally, after coming to me 3 times–and every time I tried to tell you, I tried to show you–“Me! I’m the one! It’s me you want!”….

And finally, though you said I was too beautiful, and too young, you said I was the one.

I charmed everyone, didn’t I? Even Chai. Even Tuck. Even Nick.

I brought you mice, and birds, and I slept on your bed. You gave me a good home.

Yes, there was a bad man, and yes, it hurt. It hurt so much.

But that pain is gone. It is no more.

The only pain I feel now is the pain in your heart, the part of you that blames yourself for what happened.

It’s not your fault, kind lady. It’s not your fault. Be at peace.

My time with you was lovely. You cared for me, and loved me, and kept me safe. You gave me a good home.

Someday there will come another cat, a cat that needs a good home. Open your heart again, your kind and loving heart. Give that cat a home, a hearth, a sofa to sleep on, dogs to tease and torment, food to eat and saucy mice to chase.

Don’t grieve for me, kind lady. I don’t regret a thing.

Everything we need to know, is already in our hearts.

All we have to do is be silent. And listen. Truly listen.

Goodbye sweet boy cat.

INVISIBLE SUPPORT

HOW MUSEUM DISPLAY REMINDS ME OF HOSPICE

I’m taking an online class on making mounts for museum display through the Northeastern States Conservation Center. A mount is the supporting structure that allows an artifact–a bone, a book, a bonnet, a basket–to be safely displayed in an exhibit. I want to learn more about making such displays, for my new series of artwork.

I’m in way over my head. Almost four weeks in and I’m still three weeks behind. There is so, so much more than I could ever have imagined to the incredible world of mount making. Mounts can be as creative and beautiful as any art form. And like many art forms, the discipline is formidable. So many things to consider: How fragile is the artifact? What do you want the viewer to see? What materials will not interact and damage the artifact? What will protect it from shock–everything from bumps and shakes to vibrations from passing trucks and earthquakes? The reading requirements looks about as manageable as WAR AND PEACE, without all the Russian names.

I’ve been reading an article called MOUNTMAKING by Pam Gaible, then Mount Making Supervisor at the Field Museum of Natural History. Ms. Gaible presented it at the American Association of Museums Convention in 1991.

I was fascinated by this paragraph:

How do you make a mount?
There are lots of factors to be considered when making a mount. A very important one is to have open channels of communication between the developer, mountmaker, conservator, and designer.

First the developer compiles an artifact list. Then the mount shop supervisor, the developer, and the conservator review the artifact list and create a photo book of the artifacts. The book contains a page for each artifact, which shows photo, measurements, material notes, and conservation concerns for mounting of the objects. It also contains a rough sketch of how an object can be mounted and a time estimate for making that mount.

She shows a few pages from such a book. The drawings and illustrations are beautiful. It looks like an artist’s sketchbook.

I once had the honor of viewing Cynthia Toops‘ sketchbook. Cynthia is one of my favorite polymer clay artists. Her work has a narrative feel that resonates with me. Sometimes playful, always thoughtful, charmingly folkloric yet sophisticated. Her sketchbook was as beautiful as her artwork, with tiny, exquisite drawings, details and notes. I am reminded that sometimes our tools and processes, just like museum mounts, support our art. And yet are so very artistic in themselves.

Then I read this paragraph, describing kinds of mounts:

* A typical disappearing mount. A mount that you aren’t aware of
when you view the object.
* A mount that keeps an object from migrating in the case.
* A mount that absorbs shock.
(This shock may be as small as the vibration of air conditioning
equipment or as large as an earthquake) [West Coast Style].
* A mount that helps preserve the existing structure of an object.
* A mount that is semi-permanently attached to the artifact and
functions as a handle and support.

(Rather than handling the object, you handle the mount.)
* A mount that supports an object while at the same time creates
the illusion that the mount is something else.
(Such as a mount that looks like a person, horse or campfire.)

I know this is weird–Lord, I can find synergy in anything these days!! But I thought this sort of sounds like my grief writing workshop.

A disappearing mount….that you aren’t aware of when you view the object. My purpose is to get people writing and talking about their grief. But it has to be subtle, almost invisible. Almost effortless. I do this by keeping the writing tasks short and directed. Even the poetry writing exercises are originally designed to be used with elementary school children.

But simplicity does not mean meaningless. Even the “easy” outlines create powerful results.

* A mount that keeps an object from migrating in the case. We use topics and time limits so that people can’t sink into their grief. Everything is quick, moves along. We take time to share, and cry. But we aren’t left to wander off into our misery.

* A mount that absorbs shock. A person who is grieving has suffered an enormous blow to their system. Everything hurts. Nothing brings relief. In our class, people feel like they can relax. They can cry. They can say what they really feel. Because everyone there knows what it’s really like. As one writer said, “It’s like we’re all on the same lake in a different boat!”

* A mount that helps preserve the existing structure of an object. We are deeply changed by grief. We will never be the same. But we are also still…..us. We remain. We survive. We go on, alone.

* A mount that is semi-permanently attached to the artifact and functions as a handle and support. People don’t stay long in the support groups. They come when they are ready for something more, something to help them move along. They get what they need. They heal. They go back to their lives, a little stronger, a little more resilient. They move on.

A mount that supports an object while at the same time creates the illusion that the mount is something else. I had to think about this for a moment. Then it dawned on me….

People think they come to a support group or a support workshop for help. They think we have the answers, or a process that will help them feel better.

But all we do is provide a safe place for them to talk. To share. To contemplate what this loss means to them. They do the hard work, the heavy lifting. They look at the things they’re afraid to say, or think, because that might mean they’re “not a good person”. (Almost all deaths are complicated, and some are more complicated than others.)

They dig deep into themselves, and let the light in.

They share with others who are in the same place. They sympathize. They offer comfort, courage, support. Wisdom. Understanding.

They do this for themselves, and for each other. We, the facilitators, sit and look on in astonishment.

Ah, yes, museum display and hospice/bereavement services. Who knew how much they have in common?!

HOW TO VISIT A SOMEONE WHO’S IN A NURSING HOME Part 1

Recently I accompanied my mom to visit two of her good friends in a nursing home, one of whom I wrote about yesterday.

I could tell Mom felt a little awkward. One woman was napping in her chair. “Don’t wake her!” mom exclaimed. (Okay, whispered. Exclaiming would have awakened her fried.) She wanted to leave immediately. Unfortunately, Robin sat on her bed and set off an alarm. Erna awakened, and fortunately, was happy to see us.

At first, with both there was a lot of cheerful chatter. Mostly the old stories told and retold. When the stories ran out, Mom wanted to leave.

I have vivid memories of my dad doing the same, years and years ago. There was an older woman, who grew up in Scotland, who worked for my dad in our family restaurant. She retired; soon after, she was confined to a wheelchair and eventually moved into a nursing home. She had no family here in the U.S. except for her son, who rarely visited her. I remember “making the rounds” every Sunday after church–out to the nursing home in the country to visit Bessie, back to town to visit my grandparents, and then maybe back to the “store” for an ice cream cone.

Bessie adored my father, and was always happy to see us. Dad would chat about ordinary things–the restaurant, our doings and comings and goings. I remember him bringing her flowers from our garden.

But sometimes, especially near the end of our visit, she would cry and beg Dad to get her out of there. As time went on, and she became more frail, this happened more and more, until every parting drew tears.

I remember standing there, embarrassed, wordless, having no idea what to do. I would look at my Dad. What would he do? How would he handle this?

Well, my dad would get embarrassed, too. He would weakly try to reassure her that everything was alright, and we’d all make a fast dash for the door.

In my later years, I pretty much kept up the family tradition. I felt awkward visiting folks in such places, even hospitals. I would agonize over what to bring. Flowers? Candy? Can they have candy?? A book? Maybe they’ve already read it…. I would fill the room with cheerful chatting, clumsily reassure them when things go tearful, and beat a hasty retreat.

I’m still not the soul of compassion, but I try to do better now. Because I know better.

The old rules of how to behave are gone. The circumstances have changed, and so must our patterns.

I try to see what is needed, and what is wanted. I listen. I observe. I touch.

People who have been in such places a long time have different needs. No, I take that back–they have the same needs. But we have to fill them differently.

STOP

Relax and be present.

It’s okay to be with them as they sleep. Sleep is important, yes. Especially near the end of life, deep work takes place during sleep. And it’s still rude to awaken someone suddenly, especially with shaking and loud voices. But perhaps you can sit quietly by them, gently taking their hand. Many times they will sense your presence, and awaken gently. If not, be assured they still sense you on some deep level. Even 20 minutes simply sitting quietly, and holding their hand, can be deeply reassuring.

However, don’t stare at them. Waking up to someone watching you sleep can be icky. Sometimes I just take those moments to think, or daydream. But it’s okay to bring a book if it’s hard to sit quietly.

TOUCH

Taking their hand can seem awkward and forward. When have we ever held hands with our friends, or our family, after we’re five? But people need the touch of human hands, now more than ever. It may be years since someone has hugged them, or stroked their hair, or simply held their hand.

No need to envelop them in a bear hug! I start by nonchalantly taking up their hand and cupping it gently. If someone does not want to be touched, then they will withdraw their hand. But if they welcome it, they will not. They may even clasp your hand tighter.

My friend Bonnie Blandford taught me the “hospice hug“. Instead of our quick little social hugs, it’s simply a longer hug where you let the other person choose when to stop. In fact, if they pull back after a few seconds out of habit, try holding gently for another few seconds. You’ll be surprised how many people will relax and hang on for dear life. I did this with a friend recently who had suffered a dreadful loss. When she realized she could have a long hug, she melted into my arms, and began to sob. Yep, some guys in the group got nervous, and began to make jokes about lesbians. I ignored them all. My friend had lost a new grandchild. She needed a deep hug.

LISTEN

Sometimes people want to be entertained with light chatter and news of the outside world. But sometimes they are scared, or anxious, or lonely. They yearn for richer connection. If they are scared, don’t pooh-pooh their fears. What are they afraid of? What’s making them anxious? You don’t need to fix their problems. But we all appreciate someone who listens to them!

By the way, Erna had trouble speaking and forming words. My mom assumed she was “out of it.” By sitting closer and listening carefully, it became obvious that Erna was actually quite aware and responding appropriately to everything we said. She just needed more time to respond.

STAY

I’m not so nervous about people crying now. I just keep the Kleenix coming until they’re done.

OBSERVE

As they talk with you, listen deeply. Watch “the light”. Note where they are making light of something that actually pains them. Observe the topics that make them light up with joy. For one of Mom’s friends, it was a passing comment about our dogs. She asked, “What kind of dog?” We told her. I asked her if she’d ever had a dog. Her face lit up. “Oh, yes!” She told us several stories, and then got to the one that was painful–the family dog hit by a car, and how terrible it was. The pain, the suffering, the family’s anguish. All these years later, and it was still hard. On impulse, I told her a quick version of the delightful movie, Dean Spanley*. A dog who is killed suddenly, describes it as something he didn’t understand. His former master asks if he suffered. No…no…. There was no pain. It was time to go home. How did he get there? He simply turned towards home, and went there. When asked how he knew where home was, he said, “One just knows. So you turn that way, and go there.” Erna smiled sweetly and sighed.

BE A WITNESS

Tell them about the gifts they’ve given you–the gift of their friendship, their kindnesses, their thoughtfulness. If they were feisty friends, tell them how much you admire their courage to be themselves. Though I didn’t know either woman, I knew my mother treasured their friendships, and said so. To Frannie, who changed her dress on her daughter’s wedding day, I said, “That was such a gift you gave your daughter!”

Ask questions, especially if you don’t know them well. Don’t interrogate–it’s not a fact-finding mission. Just show interest in what they have to say, how they lived their lives, what gives them joy. When they tell you hard things, say, “That must have been hard” and let them tell you more. When they tell you beautiful things, ask them what their favorite part was. Let them tell their stories.

READ

When I do hospice visits, I take books. I take one for me to read to myself and one to read aloud–a book of poetry, or short stories, or novels where individual chapters can stand alone. If the person is religious or spiritual, I’ll bring a book of prayers or blessings. I’ve found that we never lose the desire to be read to, provided the person is up for it. It’s a way to take a break from conversation, a way for them to simply listen, even a way to ease them into sleep. My daughter loves the scene in the movie WIT, where the main character (who is dying) accepts her old teacher’s offer to read to her. John Donne gets voted down, but it turns out the children’s book The Runaway Bunny is beautifully appropriate.

FORGIVE YOURSELF

It’s okay to be thankful it’s not you lying there in the nursing home. They know you feel that way. And it’s okay. You’re not a bad person. Just human. And they know that, too.

There’s more, but I forgot.

This is just quick overview of how to make such visits easier, deeper and fun. I would LOVE to hear your suggestions, too.

How did I get so smart? Listening to my daughter speak of her experiences working in such institutions–nursing homes, assisted living units, rehab wards. And my hospice training, which was rich with insights and practical advice.

*Dean Spanley is my new favorite movie. It starts slow and quiet, fueled by odd and cantankerous British humor, with the most incredibly beautiful and poignant ending. WATCH IT TO THE END!! I fell asleep halfway through the first time I watched it. Fortunately, I made myself watch it again. STAY AWAKE, or watch it twice, and I think you’ll find yourself deeply touched by its message. If you love dogs, you’ll find it triply delightful. But you don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate its message.

WHEN BEING A SAINT IS JUST TOO DAMN HARD

I just got back from a quick trip back to my hometown in Gladwin, Michigan. There were difficult family matters to discuss. It was one of those big ol’ hard discussions no one wants to have, but it went well and there is peace in my heart.

While I was there, I visited one of my mother’s oldest friends in a rehabilitation unit at our local hospital. (“Rehab” means she might be able to return home after her stay.)

It was our first meeting. Mom and Franny (not her real name) became friends when Mom started teaching middle school, after I’d already left home for college, over forty years ago. I’ve heard many wonderful stories about her over the years, and was delighted to finally see her in person.

Many, many interesting things happened during this little get-together, all of them great subjects for elder care and hospice articles.

But today I’m going to write about why being a saint is just too damn hard. And why we should…okay, could…just aim just a little lower. (Me trying not to tell you what to do.)

My mom’s favorite story about Franny involves Franny’s divorce after thirty years of marriage, her husband remarrying a younger woman, and her daughter’s wedding soon after.

Franny bought two new dresses for the wedding: A mother-of-the-bride dress for the wedding and another for the reception. She wore the first dress, and then switched to the second for the reception.

But when she got to the reception, New Wife No. 2 was wearing the same dress.

Franny went back to the dressing room and switched back to her other dress.

Mom has told this story many times, and she retold it several times while we visited Franny. Every telling ends the same way: “I tell her, “Franny, you are too good to be on this earth. You’re a saint! When you die, you’re going straight up to heaven!” (Always accompanied by a sweep of her arm and a dramatic point toward the sky.

But Franny didn’t nod her head or respond in any way. She’s obviously heard this from Mom many times, too.

I was sitting by her side, holding her hand. I said, gently, “You sound like a woman who picks her battles.” She nodded, but didn’t say anything. So that wasn’t all it was.

I said, “You chose to let your daughter have her perfect day on her wedding.”

And Franny brightened and nodded, and smiled.

I don’t know how to describe this lightening of the spirit. But when we speak, or hear, our truth, there is a subtle transformation that is beautiful. And this was Franny’s truth. Not the saintliness. Not the logical.

It’s about a tiny choice made with love.

Franny is not comfortable with being called a saint. She is not a wealthy person–a second dress for the wedding was not a small expense for her. It must have been so hard to be at her daughter’s wedding, watching her say vows that Franny and her own husband had taken so many years before. After a (supposedly) good marriage of thirty years, her husband chose to say those vows with another woman, who was sharing this important day with her. And she had to stand alone.

Of course she was angry! And indignant, confused. Of course she felt sadness, and regret, and who knows what else.

But she had the power of her choice.

She could choose to create a scene. She could choose to make a statement by not changing. After all, Franny was the mother of the bride. No one would blame her if she stuck to her guns and wore that dress with her head held high.

But she knew if she did, it would be her daughter who would suffer the most.

And she chose to change her dress. She made a choice, a tiny choice, a choice bathed in love.

When we call people ‘saints’, we think we’re talking about people who don’t feel those bad emotions. They are just naturally good. It’s easy for them. It’s so very very hard for us. Practically impossible, in fact, for us to rise above our human nature, our lizard brain. We just can’t be saints.

And so we let other people be saints. Because it’s just too hard, and we know we would fail.

What Franny did was different.

She thought it all through.

Her daughter’s happiness was in her hands for one short moment.

She could choose: Whose need would she serve?

And then she made a tiny, gracious choice.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be good. We don’t have to even try to be a saint.

We can simply try to make a tiny, gracious choice, with love.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

You can hear Mary Oliver reading this, and two other poems here If you’re short of time, start at 1:05. But if you have a few moments, “Tom Dance’s Gift of a White Bark Pinecone” is pretty wonderful, too.

WHAT WILL SURVIVE OF US IS LOVE…

I wrote this post for the Fine Art Views marketing blog. Check out their beautiful website hosting services and other artist resources here.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber and art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”

I used to think there was something wrong with me, for all the thinking I do about death. Now I’m learning this is actually common. No, not even common—it’s part of the human condition.

In fact, one professor of psychiatry posits that fear and anxiety about death are at the foundation of ALL our fears and anxieties. What we know and experience intellectually is very different than what we know emotionally. As we say in hospice, “Everyone knows they’re going to die. But nobody wants to die today.”

I’ve been reading STARING AT THE SUN: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin D. Yalom. A reviewer says, “…Once we confront our own mortality, Dr. Yalom writes, we are inspired to rearrange our priorities, communicate more deeply with those we love, appreciate more keenly the beauty of life, and increase our willingness to take the risks necessary for personal fulfillment.”

These aspects speak directly to being an artist in today’s modern world.

We’ve rearranged our priorities. We strive to communicate, deeply. We appreciate the beauty of the world around us, and inside us. We are willing to take the risks necessary to be the artist we dream of, and to get our work out into the world.

I’ve talked before about creating a legacy. I believe this drives all our actions to create our work, exhibit it, market it, and perhaps even sell it. If you have a FASO website, then you are already committed to finding an audience and a market for your work.

I once mistakenly stated that Emily Dickinson never published any of her poetry, and therefore she didn’t care, and kept writing anyway. “Oh, she cared desperately,” a more learned acquaintance corrected me. “She wasn’t published, but she really, really wanted to be!”

So in an age where someone halfway around the world can see, and like, and even buy your work…

In an age where someone halfway around the world can see, like and even copy your work…

In an age where, no matter how many artists there are, there is no one who works exactly like you…

In an age where you are one artist among tens, hundreds, thousands of thousands of other creative types with a website…

In an age where Bieber fever reigns (he started on Youtube) and videos of silly cat tricks garner a million views…

In an age where the most popular television shows cater to the dreams of people who want to be stars, and said people enter contests to achieve their goals…

What does it mean to create a body of work? What does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to “make it big”? What does it mean to create a legacy?

Sorry, no answers today! Just some questions to get you thinking about what these goals would mean to you.

What will survive of us? The only way we know anything about the people who lived in the dawn of prehistory is through the art they left behind.

But if you study archeology, you know that garbage is just as revealing. (Most archeology finds are found in ‘midden heaps’, which is a nice way of saying ‘trash pit’. The ancient Mayans had to move their entire cities when too much garbage made life in the area unsustainable.) Will future civilizations (or aliens) learn about us through our artwork? And will they judge us by the work of Thomas Kincade? Or perhaps from the plastic clamshell packaging that everything we buy is packaged in?

And whose work will survive? Whose art will define our times? One of my favorite stories from the art history textbook Janson’s History of Art told of a mediocre Victorian painter who was the most popular painter of his day. But the artists whose work now defines the age? Monet. Renoir. Cezanne. Even one who died in relative obscurity (then)—Vincent Van Gogh.

So how do we proceed? How should we live our lives? How do we approach our art? How do we shape our legacy?

I believe there’s no way to anticipate what we will leave behind. There’s certainly very little we can do to control what that will be, for more than a few decades, anyway.

All we can do is let ourselves be guided by the strongest intuition we have:

What is it you love?

Do you love to paint landscapes? Still lifes? Clowns? Paint them!

Do you love to sell your work? Sell with all your heart.

Do you love to see your name in print? Submit your work to every publication/exhibition/website you can.

Do you love to teach? Teach!

Do you love to write about art? Write!

Do you love to support yourself with your art? Be the professional you want to be, learn the skills you need, and sit in the driver’s seat of your art automobile.

Do you resent trying to make your art a business? Do the work you love to earn a living, and focus on keeping your art making open-ended and fun.

Trying to set a balance between all this? Set the balance that’s right for you.

What matters, in the end, is the kind of life you strive to lead. The ripple effect of your actions in the world—the kindnesses, love, energy, opportunities you were given, and in turn gave to others, create wavelets that move far past our own seeing. We have to simply trust they carry our best intentions, wherever they go.

What comes after us…
Whatever is made of our efforts when we are gone,
Whatever it will mean to those others who remain, what they will understand,
There is only one thing we know for sure….

It will be what serves their need, not ours.

I love the last stanza in Philip Larkin’s haunting poem, An Arundel Tomb. As he looks upon the figures carved in stone, he realizes that, whether those who lie there meant to be remembered this way or not, this is, truly, how we will remember them:

“…Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Their story may not be our story.

STARING AT THE SUN: Thoughts on What Makes a Rich Life

I made these earrings (one of two sets) when I grew past fearing what anyone would say about them, and they are my favorite ones to wear! (A professional classical violinist bought the other pair.)

I’ve been doing a little digging on death lately.

Maybe I should backtrack and explain.

I always thought I was the only person obsessed with death and dying. I think about it all the time. Partly because I’ve had a few brushes with it, partly because I’m anxious in general.

I worry about what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Whether I’ll achieve any of my goals or not. Whether I should just be happy with the goals and blessings I already have. Whether anything of me will last (beyond the world’s largest and most interesting garage sale). Whether I’ve done right by my kids, my family, my husband, my art, my writing.

Becoming a hospice volunteer was part of my exploration about death. I’ve learned so much, grown in so many ways. Still learning. Still growing, with every single client.

Many people think people who do hospice work are “better”, or “braver” or “more noble” than your average person-on-the-street, that we have a better, more evolved understanding of death. We’re not, and we don’t. When our own loved ones are in danger, or dying, we are just as much at sea as everyone else.

We’ve simply learned a little bit more about being as opposed to doing, or even worse, fixing. (Though, as my incredibly grounded volunteer supervisor Lorraine would say, “Hospice is full of recovering fixers…!”)

I’ve been reading an odd book called STARING AT THE SUN by Irvin Yalom, a therapist who deals with death anxiety. Working on the assumption that our fear of death is at the heart of most of our anxieties, he works to assure us that understanding this can lead to a richer LIFE. He talks often about the basic needs we humans have, and how even the best therapy–a sharing of healthier ideas–is enormously improved when the therapist deeply connects with his patient. Because ideas-plus-connection is an incredibly power force for healing and reconciliation.

Connection. Such a simple word, and one whose strength we can easily overlook.

But everything we do, everything we yearn for, is to garner for ourselves love, and meaningful connection.

When I’m fighting with my husband, what I am pushing down deep inside me is how much I yearn for his good opinion, for his love and respect. When he accidentally breaks the connection between us with a clumsy comment or a snitty response, I am devastated. But I cover up for that devastation with anger.

Vice versa, too.

Why am I yammering on about death, and connection?

Because this is why I make my art. And this is where the power of my images, the power of my story, the power of the cave that inspires me, comes into play.

I try to shine a little light on the wonderful, and frightening, and sad, and awful things that make us human. I try to figure out what holds us all together, while still allowing each of us to dance to our own unique music.

I’m reading another book about prehistoric art called THE CREATIVE ICE AGE BRAIN: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience Written by an art historian who is also an artist, it celebrates the unique nature of this human thing called art. The things Ms. Alperts says about ancient art could be said about almost any art being made today: It is unique to the maker as it simultaneously reflects the culture the maker lives in.

I’ve always felt that these artists of the distant past had something to say, something so powerful it reaches across eons of time to touch us today. Creating “…echoes in our modern hearts”, it is something that has lasted far, far beyond the original intentions of its makers. It is the ultimate connection that arcs across 30,000 years, perhaps more.

Don’t we all wish we could leave such a legacy?

At the same time, the message (not being written to us) will forever remain lost, an enigma.

And someday, the knowledge of these paintings, this works of art, these carvings, and our study of them, will be lost forever, too. Because nothing lasts forever.

Such is the mystery of life. Such is the mystery of death.

Oddly, the most moving comment I read in Dr. Yalom’s book was the idea that “ceasing to be” in death is remarkably like “not being yet” before we are born. In both spaces, we will have no consciousness, no sense of being. Why is one frightening, but not the other? Because now we know what we’re missing! (A little death humor here….)

I don’t have a great wrap-up for you today, or even a great thought. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about the last few days, as I stumble my way through this amazing, challenging, beautiful, sad, tragic, happy, confusing, astonishing life.

I’m also starting to de-clutter my studio. That always makes me think of death, too. (See the remark about the world’s biggest garage sale above.) I promise you a lighter piece tomorrow!

YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD

If you’re like me, when somebody says something like, “One person can change the world”, I think of the big names.

There are the bad big names: Hitler. Stalin. Atilla the Hun. Pol Pot.

There are the good big names, like Siddhartha (aka The Buddha); Martin Luther King. Beethoven.

I never see myself in that group.

The list of women who changed the world is a lot smaller. Catherine the Great. Queen Elizabeth I. Marie Curie.

Even with these, I never see myself in their ranks.

For some reason, I’m always drawn to the ones whose impact is softer (though still profound.) Florence Nightingale. Mother Theresa. Anne Frank.

Their attraction is subtle. These women did not start out in positions of power and influence. They did not seek out fame and glory. They were not ‘more special’ than other people.

They did what was in their hearts. Even when it got hard, even when they felt alone, they did what they cared about. They did the work that called to them.

Last week at our hospice volunteer meeting, we watched a film called PIONEERS OF HOSPICE: Changing the Face of Dying.

I thought it would be boring, but I was wrong. It was compelling on many levels.

The biggest was that the modern hospice movement really did start with one person.

And it wasn’t a physician. It wasn’t a social scientist. It wasn’t someone with power and influence.

It was a nurse.

Cicely Saunders, considered the founder of modern hospice and palliative care, says it wasn’t the doctors who started it. After all, they were trained to cure and save patients. They were actually taught to distance themselves from the dying.

It was nurses who were on the front lines of patient care.

It was they who saw the needless pain and suffering. Not just the physical pain, but emotional, social, financial and spiritual pain. “Who will care for my family when I’m gone?” “Will anything remain of me?”

Saunders saw the dying as people, separate from their disease or condition. She saw there was much to be done to support them, and to manage their pain.

She also saw there was much they could teach us about living.

She quickly realized her role as a nurse, and a social worker, would limit how much influence she could have. She understood that being a physician herself would empower her. She returned to school, and became a doctor.

Interestingly, although there is a profound spiritual side to hospice care, and though she is a devout Christian herself, Saunders deliberately did not link Christian faith to hospice. She felt it would close doors. She wanted the doors to be wide open.

Cicely Saunders and others have something to teach all of us, in our art and in our lives:

Follow the work that calls to you.

Do what needs to be done.

If you need more influence, figure out what will work, and pursue it.

Don’t seek fame for fame’s sake. Fame is not necessary to do important work in the world. In fact, it can distract and deflect you to your purpose. Never lose sight of where your energy is truly needed.

You will have doubts, and setbacks, and hard times. There may be sadness and loss.

But wouldn’t you rather experience those things in the context of doing the work you love? Doing the work that is important to you?

First do no harm. Hospice takes that oath further.

When the possibility for cure and recovery has past, there is still hope.

There is hope for comfort. There is hope for healing. There is hope for solace. Perhaps even for reconciliation and forgiveness. There is hope for gratitude. There is hope for a legacy.

There is always hope for love, and for peace.

Do the work that gives you peace in your heart. As our modern world rages around us, with delights and terrors, with war and reality TV, with distractions and isolation, create the work that comes from your own unique self.

Don’t judge it. Celebrate it!

Be fierce in service of your art.

THE YEAR OF (PAINFUL) GROWTH

We’re still in February and it’s been a rough year already.

We thought 2011 was bad. My best friend/lover/husband/sounding board and I hit one of those places in our marriage–you know what I’m talking about–where we’d look at each other and think (or even worse, say), “Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my husband/wife??!!”

Oh, we’ve gone to couples therapy before, for short-term help. And I mean really short-term. Sometimes we’d only need to meet with a referee counselor two or three times to get clear on our stuff. We jokingly referred to those interludes as ‘tune-ups’–just like a regular oil change to keep our partnership running smoothly.

This time, like our Subaru Forester, we went in for what we thought was an oil change, and ended up having to pull the engine. (No, we are no longer happy with Subaru.)

The repair process was simple, but not easy. If you want a year’s worth of couples counseling reduced down to a few suggestions, here are mine: Don’t assume–ask. Then listen to the answers. And don’t eat those restaurant leftovers unless you ask their owner first. (It’s one of those situations where preferring to ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission will backfire. Just trust me on this one.) Oh, and the biggie: Value the relationship over having to be right.

It was a tough process, but we’re on the home stretch. We can now afford to look back and say, “I almost lost you” and be amazed. A good thing.

So what could be worse than almost losing your marriage?

Almost losing your kids.

Last fall was the time of extreme anxiety. Finding out your kid is in an abusive relationship? It’s the worst (or so we thought.) We had to tread carefully, keeping doors open, staying grounded, trusting in….well, trust. Putting our faith in the love and trust we’d built over the years.

We were rewarded with a happy outcome. Our child is safe. Life is good. We’re moving on. We breathed a grateful prayer. 2012 was going to be so much better!

Then, a few weeks ago, we got ‘the phone call.’

It’s the one in the middle of the night, the one you never want to get.

The police telling us there had been an accident.

Before my heart could stop, the caller rushed to assure us, “He’s okay! He’s okay!”

We nearly lost our other kid. To a car accident so fierce, our aforementioned Subaru Forester would now probably fit inside a large refrigerator. I still can’t look at the pictures without choking up.

He’s okay. Or rather, he’ll be okay. Miraculously, though his injuries are numerous, he will recover fully. It will be a long, hard journey, but someday he will be able to put this behind him. And I am very aware that this is not always the case, for so many people or the families they leave behind… My heart breaks for them.

Of course, there are blessings in all of this. I learn from everything, even the bad stuff. But sometimes it’s just too….too. As one of my sisters said years ago, delirious with pain after burning her hand badly while dealing with a small kitchen fire, and listening to us all tell her how lucky for her it was her left hand, not her right, just her hand, not her life, just the kitchen and not the house, etc., “Well, I don’t feel so damned lucky!!”

I just spoke with my beloved hospice supervisor, Lorraine, who struggled to find the right words today. I finally said, “Oh, yeah, there are are blessings here…..DAMN IT!!! And we both burst out laughing.

But…there are blessings.

I am grateful we both believed our marriage was worth fighting for.
I am grateful that my kids know for sure how much we love them. Or, if one of them isn’t sure, we’re getting another chance to prove it to him.
I am grateful for the people who listened. Really, truly listened
I am grateful for the small courtesies received from friends, and family, and complete strangers.
I am so, so grateful for the people who do not judge.

I’ve learned a lot, too.

I know now that a good day doesn’t depend on the weather, or how much I got done, or what didn’t go wrong. Sometimes a good day is simply a day where nobody dies.

Some people think we are ‘bearing up’ well. It’s simple. I know now that there are times when you know the worst has already happened, and times where you know the worst might yet happen. The first is a piece of cake, compared to the latter. I know now that the latter is much, much scarier, and harder to bear.

I know now that no matter what you’re going through, there are other people who understand. Those powerful words of Rosanne Cash, from her book Composed: A Memoir, still resonate in my heart:

You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…

I’ve learned that people will judge. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, though. I want to say to them, “Look, if the universe slapped us down or tried to KILL US whenever we did something careless, there wouldn’t be too many of us still walking around…” But I know it’s just human nature. It’s how we convince ourselves that something like that would never happen to us, a way to distance ourselves, a way to protect ourselves. “Well, my kid/husband/daughter would never do that!” Really? Huh…..

Today, my wish for you is what I would wish for myself.

Today, may your blessings be small ones. Simple ones. Easy ones.
May they involve a hug or two, and perhaps a good laugh, and someone to share it with.
May you get a chance to learn something the easy way. Not the hard way.
And may you always get a second chance, another chance to say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” To say, “Thank you.”

To say, “I love you.”

LESSONS FROM KNITTING DISH CLOTHES

How the lowly knitted dish cloth revitalized my knitting.

I don’t normally consider myself a ‘knitting blog’, but here I am with two articles about knitting…. You can teach an old dog a new trick!

So my ‘trick’ today is another lesson learned in hospice.

I have a friend who’s what I consider a talented knitter. She’s constantly challenging herself with new techniques. (Lace! Entrelac! I can’t even spell entrelac…)

She always has a knitting project going. Not like me, with one project half-finished in one grocery bag, and already off to a bad start with another. Nope, she starts a project and she finishes it.

She is disciplined, too. She buys enough yarn for her current project and maybe her next project. Not for all the projects she might knit in her next five lifetimes (like I do.)

So one day I found her knitting dish cloths.

I couldn’t believe it. Why…would anyone knit a dish cloth??

But I found out when I found a stash of them in my current client’s knitting bag. She told me why, and I believe her.

1. They’re quick. I can do an entire dishcloth in an hour or two. The feeling of accomplishment is almost overwhelming.

2. They’re easy. Yes, there are complex lacy patterns. But there are also tons of simple patterns that look just as nice.

3. They’re cheap inexpensive to make. For someone like me who tends to buy a ton of exotic yarn and even then finding out I don’t have the right weight/amount/color, it’s sweet to run into the yarn store and buy one $2 ball of Sugar ‘n’ Cream cotton yarn to make one dish cloth. And because you only need one ball of yarn…..

4. It’s a very portable project. I don’t even need to carry the pattern for some designs, they’re that straight-forward to knit. So instead of my usual giant bag full of books, needles, etc., I can manage with a teensy tiny purse or basket.

5. They’re a great way to try out new patterns. Rather than investing hundreds of hours with a new pattern (only to decide I hate it), I can test a new stitch or technique in one little dish cloth.

But best of all, knitting such an accessible little project….

6. Jump-starts my knitting process. I’m one of those people that has to look at tons of patterns, consider tons of yarn candidates, think about oodles of color combinations, stress about lots of new stitches and techniques and swatches and gauge and even needle lengths. I agonize about doing things just right. I think way, way too much, and then rarely start.

That is, I tend to let a lot of things get in between me, and me actually knitting.

But a little dish cloth is so simple, so mindless, and yet accessible, it’s almost effortless for me to get started on one. Which is great because….

7. Everybody wants one. I had no idea how desirable these things were! But apparently, they make very popular little gifts, because….

8. They are the perfect dish cloth. They work really, really well.

So…beauty; accessibility; challenge; utility; and makes you the most popular person in the room at parties. There’s just no downside.

I eat my words. I take it all back.

It is pretty wonderful to knit a dish cloth!

I even thought of a way to make the decreased edges look more like the increased edges! (These are knit on the diagonal, my first time!)

MY ART IS WHO I AM: Another Lesson From Hospice

Every hospice experience teaches me something. And my latest hospice client has already taught me something big.

The first client visit can be tricky. Each situation is very different, and I never know what to expect. So I come prepared for almost anything.

My visiting bag usually holds several books. One is something for me to read if the client is sleeping or not conscious. Another is a book of poetry, or a prayer book, or perhaps a favorite story to read aloud. (One of my favorite memories is reading Dodie Smith’s bittersweet “I Capture the Castle” to an elderly gentleman, who was as enthralled by the story as I was.)

I also carry a good supply of crossword puzzles, a notebook or journal to write in, and sometimes, my latest knitting project.

On my first visit with this client, she spied my knitting needles and asked me about my project. I pulled it out and soon we were talking about knitting. Turns out she was an avid–and extremely talented–knitter. And though her yarn stash does not rival mine, it’s still impressive.

Sadly, she’s losing the ability to knit. “But we can still look!” I said cheerfully. So we spend our time looking at knitting magazines, exclaiming over the pretty pictures of sweaters, hats and scarves, commenting on the yarns and the patterns. Last week, she turned to me and said in a fierce whisper, “I just LOVE looking at knitting patterns!” “So do I!” I whispered back.

Today she spoke sadly (and metaphorically, which is common at this stage) about not being able to knit anymore, and about “an event” that’s coming, something that cannot be stopped, something that comes for everyone.

It’s hard to talk about, she said. And people sometimes pretend it’s not coming, but it is. “It is hard,” I tell her. “People don’t know what to say. So they say nothing.” She nods fiercely.

I ask her how she feels about it. She thinks for a moment.

There are things that have defined her, all her life, that are now slipping away softly but surely, into a growing gray mist. “I can’t remember what it is, but it’s all going away,” she says sadly.

My heart goes out to her. It reminded me of my very first day in hospice training.

One of the hospice chaplains ran the exercise. It sounds laughably simple.

But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

She gave each of us ten little slips of paper. We were each told to write down ten things that were important to us.

They could be people (family, friends), they could be experiences (marriage, traveling, work), skills (arts, gardening, dancing, martial arts), character traits (intelligence, humor).

We spent quite a bit of time getting our lists just right.

Then the chaplain said, “I’m going to come around and take one of your slips. Decide which one you can give up.” It was hard, but it went quickly.

Then she said, “Now I’m going to take three things. Here I come!” Those three things were much harder to choose. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she was done.

Then she said, “Hold up your remaining slips. This time, I get to choose!” I guess I thought she would read each ‘hand’ and make a decision. Nope. She strode purposely around our circle, grabbing randomly at the slips in our hands.

It was really really hard.

What we lost was hard.

What was even harder, was knowing it was coming.

And not knowing what we would lose.

Some people tried to fight it. They held on tightly, refusing to let go. (But they had to, in the end..)

Some people–okay, all of us!–cried out in dismay when a precious slip was taken.

Many of us just cried. I did.

It wasn’t fair! Some people got to keep a few precious slips. Others lost all of them.

I cannot describe how it felt. Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow…. None of us were unscathed.

The power of those little slips of paper was palpable. Losing them was devastating.

“This is what it’s like,” said the chaplain softly. “This is what it’s like, at the end. Everything–everything–is lost.”

Such a simple exercise. Such a powerful lesson.

I looked at this amazing little woman, who was looking at me, wordlessly asking me….something.

I couldn’t remember the rest of that training day. I couldn’t remember what the chaplain said next.

I could only remember a little story this woman’s daughter had told me an hour earlier.

“Remember the sweater you made for your daughter?” I said. “How beautiful it was, and how beautiful it made her feel?”

She nodded.

“That is what will never go away. You did that. You made something beautiful. It made her feel beautiful. It made her feel loved. That is what will last.”

She nodded fiercely again.

I think I saw a little smile on her face.

My friend Kerin Rose once tried to tell me this, a few years ago when I was in a bad place. I felt apart from my art for awhile, and was frightened of who I would–or wouldn’t be–without it.

“You would still be you,” she insisted. I wasn’t sure….

But now I understand.

Yes, my art is who I am.

Not because of what I can or can’t do. Nor because of what I could do.

But because of what I’ve already done.

Because of what it’s already meant to me.

And because of what it’s already meant to others.

And that is what will last.

Dishclothes

LESSONS FROM GRIEF WRITING: A Candle to Light Our Way in the Darkness

Writing is another way art can help us heal.

I’ve been leading group writing workshops for people who are grieving–grieving the loss of their mom, their dad, their wife or husband, their child, their sister or brother or best friend.

For this project, I’m ‘on loan’ to the bereavement section of the hospice team. A social worker runs the group management part, and I handle the writing part.

It’s scary space for me. I was terrified I would delve too deep in my prodding, and drive someone into a frenzy of grief. I ran to my hospice supervisor for help. She reassured me. “People are pretty tough,” she said. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. Yes, sometimes the writing assignments bring tears. But tears are good in the grieving process. And people are amazed at the places their writing is taking them.

There’s something about the actual physical act of writing that is very different than speaking, or even typing or texting. It accesses a different part of the brain, thus allowing the brain to process grief in a different way. Many assignments start off on one foot and firm ground. About halfway through, something else comes through, and the writing enters new territory.

It’s startling and new. It’s powerful. It doesn’t ‘fix’ grief–nothing can do that–but it seems to set the healing process in motion. It’s like having an injury that hurts and hurts, persisting through time, until a physical therapist shows you what muscles to soften and what muscles to strengthen. The cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, and true healing can begin. That’s what grief writing can do.

Of course, social workers know the group thing is important, too. Sharing loss with others who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. No matter how shy or reserved we are, we are all still social animals. We suffer in our own unique way, and we feel so alone.

We may suffer in solitude, but we need not suffer in isolation. Being able to connect with others who empathize, connects us to our human condition.

I still believe the writing is the match that starts the candle burning. It’s a flare of energy and insight, making the light that lets us see into the darkness.

COMMITMENT

It’s been a busy month, with a week-long gig at a glorious old grand hotel as artist-in-residence (and marriage counselor); our son moving into his own digs (it’s time, it was expected, but Oh God, it was still hard….) and my daughter Robin announcing her engagement to a very nice young man named….Rob. (He told me earnestly last week, “Mrs. Udell, when you say ‘Rob’, I can almost always tell which one of us you’re talking to!”

So marriage, and committment is on my mind today. Mine, my daughter’s, and the delightful woman I spoke with at length during little artist workshops I gave at The Balsams.

How on earth did I end up advising a perfect stranger about marriage?? It started when the woman corrected me when I referred to her partner as her husband. “We’re not married, but we’ve been together 10 years,” she said. I asked why they hadn’t married. It was a sad story of a difficult first marriage, and fear about making that kind of commitment again.

We talked over several days. It was obvious they were both good people and cared deeply for each other. She said she had no doubts about him–“He’s a good man.” But still she was afraid of history repeating itself.

I finally said to her, “Don’t make decisions out of fear.”

How long does it take for a man to prove to his beloved that he is the real deal? That his love is real, and their relationship is based on respect and love?

It’s like saying, “When I have a lot of money, then I’ll feel safe.” Then you have a million dollars, but it’s still not enough. “When I have TWO million dollars, then I’ll feel safe.” True story, from Martha Beck.

If 10 years is not enough for someone to prove their intentions, what will another 5 years mean? Another 10? A lifetime?

And you’ve essentially said to this person you love, “Actually, ‘never’ is good. Is ‘never’ good for you?”

Of course, I immediately felt I’d overstepped myself and apologized.

But the day I left for home, she told me she was starting to change her mind.

Later that same day, my baby girl told me Rob had proposed to her, and she had accepted.

My only concern was they hadn’t known each other for years and years, and began dating each other only recently. Did they have enough evidence to make this decision? What if it didn’t work out?

Then I realized I’d decided about Jon in just about as much time.

And I realized there is no way to be absolutely sure about love. We make our best guess, based on the evidence that matters to us.

And we take that magical leap of trust, and hope.

She posted her relationship status change on Facebook, and my husband had this to say:

It has been a wonderful thing to behold. Rob and Robin are highly self-aware people who are smart enough to know the right thing when they see it, and strong enough to work through a process that will take some time and adjustment. I was quite unprepared for how happy this has made me!

My post? “Plus he’s funny & SAYS he thinks we’re nice!”

What does this have to do with art? Plenty. Why am I writing about marriage here today?

Because so many of the things that really matter in the world are based on this leap of faith.

Pursuing your passion. Making art. Getting married. Having kids.

Even pursuing success, when I deconstructed my desires for it, came from a need to show my love and commitment for my art; to hope people love it–and me!; to create a teensy bit more love and hope in the world with the work of my hands and my words.

Whether we mean it or not, whether we sought it or not, or found it or not, love has been by our side every step of the way.

Sometimes we are surrounded by people who cannot show their love very well, or even by some who can’t love very well.

Sometimes we have to create for ourselves the love we can only imagine.

But it’s there. And if we are lucky, and if we are open to it…

When we find it in some small measure, it is a treasure.

And when we find it in abundance, it is a blessing.

The more times I sit by a hospice bedside, holding someone’s hand as they they go out on the tide of their life, the more I know the truth of these hauntingly beautiful words…

…Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

by Phillip Larkin, from “An Arundel Tomb”

In all that you do, in all that you make with your whole heart, may love find you there.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #3: The Grief Writing Workshop Continues

What will survive of us is love.

I had to laugh when I looked through my drafts file this morning. I have tons of posts labeled “Lessons from Hospice”, but I see I’ve only published a handful. I realize now some of them seem simple, but are too much for me to handle. I’m reminded that so many of the good lessons in life are simple. But not necessarily easy.

Today’s thoughts come from the Grief Writing Workshop I’ve been running for a couple months now. We’re on session number two, with most of the first members signing up for another round, and some new members, too.

I’m seeing the changes in people already. When some of them started, their grief was palpable, written on their faces and even in their postures. It’s astonishing to see the changes in them as they begin the healing process. As they work towards peace and acceptance, they literally seem to glow. Such is the healing power of writing.

When I first struggled to get a grip on what this workshop would be like, I found this essay by Kathleen Adams extremely helpful. For anyone who’d like to pursue a career in such work, I highly recommend her website JournalTherapy.com.

The free-writing technique I learned years ago may be too overwhelming for those who are still in the raw stages of grieving. A simple but flexible structure in my workshop helps immensely.

We have a typical support group opening (establishing rules of confidentiality, for example). We name our loved one–because our culture is so uncomfortable with death, people hesitate to even say their name or bring up their death. For those who have lost someone, this feels like that person has truly been erased from the earth.

We do a few simple warm-up exercises, then move into writing on various topics. I started out with my own, but as people grew more comfortable, they started bringing their ideas, too. We do poetry-writing exercises, and I usually end by reading a favorite poem or prayer. We end as we began–saying our name, and the name of the one we’ve lost.

So simple. So ridiculously, delightfully simple. Yet the results are simply blowing me out of the water each week.

Of course, I’m not really teaching these people how to write. They come to the class because they already write, or they want to write more. I’m not even teaching them to write write WELL. I don’t edit their work, nor criticize their efforts in any way.

I give them the time, the resources, and the encouragement to do what their heart yearns to do–to contemplate what has been lost, and what has been found, in writing.

If anything, the greatest gift I give them is just this: Permission.

Permission to write, because it is important to them. Permission to write, because they love to write. Permission to write, because they want to.

“Write for yourself!” I tell them constantly. “Write your truth, your thoughts. Use writing to get yourself to a place you can’t get to with just talking, just thinking. Write the raw stuff. Write the mistakes, the scribbles, the doubts. Write ‘blah blah blah’ if you can’t think of anything to write–but write down the blah blah blah. Write as if you are the only person who will ever see it. Sure, use this later for inspiration, for ideas, for essays, poetry, whatever. But start here: Write because you must.”

I show them a gem of a book I found in my research for this class, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The book is fine, but what I love best is the title. The writing is in your bones, and you have to do it.

(BTW, it looks like Natalie Goldberg and I went to University of Michigan at the same time. I wonder if our paths ever crossed?)

I couldn’t become the artist I always dreamed of being until I finally realized I HAD TO MAKE ART. And when I let go of the idea of being a GOOD ARTIST. When I accepted that it didn’t matter if it were good or bad, it simply had to exist in the world–and the only way that could happen was through me.

So, too, these folks are slowly losing the coulda/shoulda/woulda stuff that holds back any creative effort. They simply pour their hearts and their souls into the work.

And what comes through is exquisitely, profoundly beautiful. And poignant. And gentle/sad/raging/full of wonder and joy.

And after every session, I marvel at the miracle that has occurred right in front of me, from a small circle of strangers, now friends, who have blessed me, and each other, with the tender gift of their grieving, healing hearts.

So what’s the lesson? I dunno. I thought I’d just write this today, and not wait til it was wrapped up neatly in a package tied with ribbon for you.

I guess I’m learning that even when the worst thing you can imagine happens to you–the loss of your child, your soul mate, your sibling, your dearest friend–even as your heart is breaking and you feel like it is not possible for a human being to cry any more tears–there is a place of healing, and hope, and joy at the gift you had, and how no one can ever truly take that away from you.

I’m learning there is a place where all can be forgiven, if never quite understood.

I’m learning that sometimes, the most important person to forgive is yourself.

I’m learning that everyone is deserving of love. That we all yearn for it, need it, cry for it.

I’m learning, every day, that the line from Philip Larkn’s An Arundel Tomb is true, if only (and it’s such an important ‘if’) because we need it to be true:

What will survive of us is love.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #2: Being Right

I had an unsettling experience recently during a hospice assignment. An employee of a facility where I was meeting a client challenged my right to be there and essentially sent me packing.

I was humiliated and ashamed. And, I’ll admit it, indignant and angry.

What floors me today is that I acted on the first feelings.

After sobbing my heart out, I left a message for my volunteer supervisor (who is amazing, btw) to tell her what had happened. I thought I had ‘ruined’ hospice for our client and proven myself to be an utter failure as a hospice volunteer.

When my supervisor called back, she did what she always does. (Did I mention she was amazing?) She assured me I had done nothing wrong, and she would investigate.

Within 24 hours, I was totally vindicated. It turns out the employee was a per diem worker who was totally unfamiliar with hospice and its goals. And I had done the right thing by apologizing and leaving, and letting more appropriate people handle the situation.

In my morning pages, today, I noted that my last entry had been an impulse to go visit my hospice client. I acted on that impulse, thinking I was choosing the ‘best action’ for me that day. I wrote how badly that had ended, but that I had also been vindicated.

I looked up ‘vindicated’. It comes from an ancient Latin word, and has come to mean :…shown or proven to be right, reasonable, justified. To be avenged.”

But I was startled to learn that the original Latin meaning came from a word meaning ‘claim’. And originally meant “to free someone from servitude by claiming him as free.”

I’m astonished. Because I realize what actually happened was not just that someone had accused me of bad judgment….

But I had chained myself to their bad opinion of me.

I allowed myself to be held captive to someone else’s judgment. Worse–someone else’s bad judgment.

In my heart, I knew I’d done nothing unprofessional or hurtful. But given this young person’s world view–she didn’t have as much information about the situation as I did, she was inexperienced, and she had no hospice training–I can see why she thought–and spoke–the way she did.

On the other hand, she was chained to her pride–her belief that she had all the facts and that despite her inexperience, she knew best. And I allowed my world view to be overshadowed by hers.

In the end, we can only ask ourselves, “What is best for this client? Are his needs being served?” So, I did the right thing, and left. Reported to the appropriate people and let them navigate the inside politics and processes of the facility.

The client will get what he needs–extra care during these difficult times. Hopefully, the employee will get what she needs–knowledge about hospice.

And perhaps, at my ripe old age(no, I’m not telling today, because yesterday someone said I looked 20 years younger), maybe I will get what I need….as a hospice volunteer, as an artist, as a wife and mother, as a writer, as an ordinary human being walking the earth today, in this moment.

I pray for what I need today:

The ability to let go of the need to be right. The ability to not buckle to someone else’s unkind opinion of me. To not chain my feelings of self-worth to the judgment of others.

To know my own worth, and the value of my own actions and thoughts, unless they are truly working from a place of love and kindness.

To trust my heart.

To lose my need to feel vindicated, and to realize I am already free.