I’m too hot and lazy today to write a post. So I’m reprinting one from my old blog at Radio Userland, one of the early blog sites.
Many years ago, I was miserably single, sure that I would end my life alone in a messy house filled with cats. Each new relationship seemed to vie for the previous one for weirdness and dysfunction.
I drove up to my sister’s house for a visit one weekend. While we waited for her husband Tom to get home from work, I helped watch her boys while she took down the laundry.
They lived in a tiny town 30 minutes outside a big city, in a run-down but charming old farmhouse Sue had painted and wall papered to within an inch of its life. It was warm and homey.
We were out in their spacious backyard. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day. A brisk wind whipped the sheets on the clothesline as Sue struggled to unpin them. Joey, her oldest boy, was running happily to and fro, occasionally plowing into a flapping sheet, his little three-year-old body pushing into its folds. Her baby Eddie was gurgling in his bouncy chair.
I was almost heartsick with envy. I was happy for Sue, of course. But I wondered if I would ever have such joy in my life.
The bees buzzed through the flowers, the wind blew, and all birds sang. I finally set aside my envious heart and chased Joe through the sheets as he shrieked with delight.
I remain, to this day, “Aunt You” thanks to Joe’s inability to pronounce the letter “L” at the time.
Years later, my husband and I moved to New England with our newborn baby. We bought our first home, a run-down farmhouse in the middle of Keene.
It was July, and in the middle of a major heat wave when we moved in. We only had one fan. Jon went off in the mornings to his air-conditioned office. I would lie on the floor panting in front of the fan, with Robin gazing at me with solemn eyes at my side.
We had a washing machine, but no dryer. I slogged out huge baskets of cloth diapers (yes, we fell for that ‘environmentally responsible’ crap), clothes towels and sheets to hang on the clothesline in our backyard.
One day, I hung our clothes out to dry. Before I could bring them inside, it rained.
I spun them in the washing machine, and hung them out to dry again.
It rained again.
And then they started to smell, because they’d been damp for so long.
So I washed them again, and hung them up once more.
They were barely dry when it started to sprinkle again. I dashed outside with Robin in her bouncy seat, and frantically began to fling everything into laundry baskets before it really poured.
Despite all the rain, it was still incredibly hot. The rains only seemed to increase the humidity.
The mosquitoes were fierce, and I alternated between smacking them off me and off Robin. She had developed a rash, and was prickly and bumpy. She was usually a happy baby, but not today. She fussed and cried as I raced the rain.
The lawn badly needed mowing–the weeds came up almost to my knees. The mosquitoes absolutely loved it. So did our cat, who repeatedly leaped out of the grass to pounce my ankles whenever I passed too close.
Halfway through unpinning sheets, I suddenly remembered that it was almost time for Jon to come home–and I had totally forgotten about dinner. There was nothing in the house to eat.
And the house was a total mess.
I thought of that day at Sue’s house.
When I called my mom that evening, I told her about my busy afternoon.
She said, “So you realized the dream wasn’t as wonderful as you thought it would be?”
Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.
Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.
Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.
They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.
And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.
The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.
“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”
She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.
People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.
We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.
(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)
We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”
And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.
The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”
Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”
The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.
A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.
All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.
How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.
For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.
It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.
Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.
Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.
We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.
When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.
So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?
I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.
I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.
I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.
I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.
I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.
I’m left with peace in my heart.
And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.
This is a column I wrote for The Crafts Report, way back in 2010. (I remember it well….it was…ah…the year before 2011.) I just came across it, looking for something else, which, by the way, I haven’t found yet. (That’s how my life works, people. Embrace the serendipity.) But it make me laugh again, and maybe you will, too.
I recently picked up a used copy of Ekhart Tolle’s THE POWER OF NOW at a local thrift shop. It’s a well-loved, well-read copy–the previous owner underlined and highlighted almost every single page. I especially loved the “!!!” and “YES!!” and “THIS IS IMP.!!” written in the margins. Just in case I missed what was going on.
I don’t want to make fun of that person nor the book though. It really does have some thoughtful things to say. It’s about being “in the moment”—not reliving a painful past, nor anticipating the future at the expense of the “now.” It takes a lot of practice, though. Otherwise, you end up watching a clock and saying things like, “NOW….it’s 10:30:24.” “NOW….it’s 10:30:31.”
On this particular day, I’d worked hard in the studio. I’d promised two of my galleries I’d restock them quickly, as they’d sold a lot of my work lately. A LOT of my work. (Whoo hoo!)
I worked on a popular new series of jewelry, with a more organic, simpler designs. It seems to appeal to people who like my aesthetic, but want something more “neutral” than powerful animal totemic work. (What?? You don’t want a giant ivory bear hanging around your neck when you go to the supermarket??) (I can joke about my work, but you can’t, okay?)
I’d been focused and busy all day, “in the zone”, moving easily from one production task to another.
Later that evening I was dashing around town to finish up some stuff so I could relax “later”. You’d think by now I’d know that “later” rarely comes.
The last errand took me across town and back. On the way home, I thought maybe I could practice being “in the moment” in my normal life, too.
So instead of wishing I could hit all the green lights, or cursing the idiot who pulled out in front of me at the rotary, I tried to slow my breathing down. Breath…… In. Pause. Out.
I relaxed and observed what was going on right now.
“I’m driving the car,” I thought. It felt like flying. That was neat.
My knee ached a little. “My knee hurts,” I thought. But that was a good thing. It meant I’d gone for a long, vigorous walk with our dog Tuck, playing “monster chasing dog” and “kick the pine cone” and “grab the stick and pull” games. (Dog training tip: A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.)
“We have a dog!” I thought. Tuck, sitting in the back seat, chose that moment to stick his head forward and nestle it gently next to mine. Sweet. Except for the doggy breath. I’m still not used to that.
“I’m cold,” I thought. Not painfully cold, just enough to feel it. Refreshing.
“I’m on my way home to my family.” That felt good, too.
I drove through the town square. “This is a pretty town,” I thought. Keene does have a really nice downtown. This is where our kids grew up. No matter where we end up, it will always hold a special place in our heart.
“It’s a beautiful evening,” I thought.
And then I thought, “I’m driving through a cloud of soap bubbles. And I was.
Someone in an apartment above had opened a window and blown soap bubbles to drift down to the street below.
It was wonderful. Quite a lovely moment.
Then I saw a very flat, very dead squirrel, and that moment was done.
Yesterday I met the family who may have saved my son’s life.
The daughter heard the car crash late that night. She roused her mother. They ran outside in their pajamas to his car.
Everyone who saw the car said the same thing. They all thought no one could have survived that crash.
The woman and her daughter sat with him while the dad called 911.
The mom stayed with son til the police and ambulance came. She couldn’t reach him–he was too entangled in the dashboard. The car was so badly crushed, he couldn’t move.
It was cold that night, in the teens. She gave him her coat to staunch the bleeding from his head wounds. She kept talking to him, trying to keep him from passing out or falling asleep. He was obviously in shock, and suffering from a concussion.
The first police officer on the scene waited with him til the ambulance came. “He was gentle and supportive,” the mom said.
If the daughter had not heard the crash, my son could have lain there for hours before someone found him. No one else heard it–all the other houses in the area remained dark and silent.
I know he is a man, all grown up, with a deep voice, a scowl for his out-of-it parents, with a job and an apartment, a whole life we know so little about.
In my mind’s eye, I still see that small child, solemn one moment, giggling with laughter and joy the next. In his purple snowsuit, wearing the purple hat I knit for him, pulling his beloved wagon and carrying his stuffed dog.
I asked him if he remembered her. He said no. He’s too embarrassed to meet her. Someday, he may feel differently.
In the following weeks, the mom and daughter gathered up the detritus from the crash–broken mirrors, pieces of metal–that the clean-up crew overlooked. They didn’t want anyone else to be injured by sharp glass and metal. They also found some CDs, some computer games, a hacky-sack or two. They gathered these in a box, and called our home a few days ago to let us know we could pick them up.
“We’re in the big house right across the street from where it happened,” she said on the phone. “You can’t miss us.”
My husband had been to the site, taking pictures of the skid marks, the road, later the car at the tow garage. I hadn’t been to the site. It was hard to look at that deep drop-off from the road, the gash in the tree, the scrape on the telephone pole.
I remembered the photos my husband had taken of the car. I remember not being able to take my eyes off those images. They were horrible.
The mom and dad came to the door to greet us. I thanked her. It was nothing, she said. She simply did what anybody would have done–taken care of a stranger, a young man in need.
She’d been in a bad accident once. She’d fallen asleep on her way home, and woke up to confusion and pain. But she was not as fortunate. No one heard her car crash. She’d made her way, slowly and painfully, to a nearby house. They wouldn’t let her in. They made her wait in the driveway while they phoned the police. She remembers how that felt–in the dark, in the cold, in pain, waiting. She said she couldn’t let that happen to someone else.
I was thinking, so it’s NOT what anyone else would have done.
I took them some of my jewelry as a small token of gratitude. I told her how grateful we were, that she had been kind to my son. We hugged, and went back home.
I had a chance to meet the police officer, too, at the emergency room. He was gentle and kind. We met again at the police station a few weeks later. He did his job, but without the need to heap further humiliation on top of my son. I shook his hand. I told him it had been a very difficult night, and he had made it a little easier with his kindness.
It was nothing, he said.
It was everything, I said.
I thought of the police lieutenant in Ann Arbor, the one who listened to me when I called asking for help, for guidance when we found out our daughter’s fiance was a potentially dangerous person. She couldn’t offer much as a police officer, she said. But as a mother, she had a lot to give.
We spoke to her many times over the next few weeks. In our trips out to Michigan to be with our daughter, we got to meet her. A wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful woman, she was one of countless remarkable souls who were with us in our hour(s) of need.
Her email address said “Angela”, and as I got up to leave after our visit, I called her that.
She laughed. “It’s ‘Angela’ here in the department,” she said. “But my real name is Angel.”
To Whomever Makes Parking Meter Purchase Decisions:
I am not enjoying the new parking meter system in downtown Keene. And if we can judge by the unusually high number of empty parking spaces in that area lately, I have a lot of company.
I’ve had to wait in line at the kiosks, even when I simply need 6 minutes to run an errand.
No matter where I park, I have to detour to go to the kiosk. In fact, this system completely eliminates the concept of a “great parking spot.” It’s no longer in front of your destination store, because you still have to go out of your way to get to the kiosk. When the weather is lovely and my arthritis isn’t acting up, and now that I no longer have small children in tow, a detour to a kiosk is no big deal. But when snowbanks are piled high, when it’s raining or freezing out,when sidewalks are icy, when I’m in a hurry, when I’m carrying a child or two, when I’m recovering from yet another knee surgery, that extra trip is just a pain, literally and figuratively.
The kiosks don’t accept debit cards or credit cards. So we’re still stuck fumbling for change. However, it looks like it will be lucrative for the city, because when the kiosks misfire and refuse to accept change, you have to put a dollar in no matter how little time you need. And when it refuses to make change, well, we lose again.
But who really loses? Downtown merchants. This morning I went to Prime Roast for coffee. The row of spaces in front of their store was completely empty, except for one car. I haven’t seen the street that empty, on a weekday morning, in 20 years.
If you make it a hassle for customers to patronize downtown businesses, they will go somewhere else to shop.
I’d rather have the old meters back. Simple and quick. Or better yet, a meter (NO KIOSK, please, God) that accepts change, dollars and debit/credit cards. Or a parking pass card, like EZ pass. Pay a monthly or annual fee, get a car sticker or a swipe card, and never worry again about how many quarters I have.
Please—just make it less annoying to shop downtown, okay?
Yep, life was weird and scary this fall and winter, and I’ve been in a funk.
So many days I didn’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of my own bed. I couldn’t think of a reason why I should, either. I slept ten hours, eleven hours, sometimes twelve hours at night.
And still felt lethargic and only half-here.
Now some of the grey has lifted. Slowly, I return to the things that have always given me strength–my writing, my craft, my marriage, my family.
And my friends.
Last week, on an impulse, I invited myself to piggy-back along on a friend’s trip down to Webs, a fabulous yarn store in Northampton, MA. I’m in knitting mode, which hits me in winter. Actually, I’m in yarn-and-pattern-and-book buying mode, but whatever.
I couldn’t believe how much I anticipated that road trip. Jenny was taking a class, and would spend most of the day at the store. It’s the kind of place I can hang out in for hours, too–shopping the yarn warehouse, with its bargain-basement prices. With a shopping cart, people! I need more yarn like a hole in the head, but it was so soothing to be with the lovely colors and textures of yarn. Then I spent more hours browsing through every single pattern book and leaflet.
It all appeals to the hunter-gatherer in me.
I was in fiber junkie heaven.
And I got to spend some time with Jenny. Which turned out to be the best, most healing part.
To know Jenny is to love her. She’s simply a good, gentle woman. Always there for her family and friends. She has an open and loving heart, and we gravitate to her as a sunflower follows the sun.
One particular exchange resonates with me today. Jenny has sheep, and she’s the ‘morning feeder’. She gets up at the crack of dawn, rain or shine, to care for them. (Her husband Mike, another treasured presence in our circle, is the ‘night feeder’.)
Jenny said sometimes she hates getting up in the cold winter mornings. It can be a hard time of day here in New England. Freezing rain, deep snow, cold winds can put a damper on your enthusiasm. (I’m personally grateful we don’t have ducks or chickens this year…. The feelings of guilt on those zero degree nights is mind-numbing!)
But then Jenny, as she usually does, said something quiet and clear, and deeply profound.
“I look around, and see the morning,” she said. “And each morning is so different, Lu! Each one is beautiful in its own way….”
Light. Sky. Clouds. Wind. Water–snow, ice, rain, mist, dew. Birds. Color–in the flowers, in the leaves, everywhere you look. Something that catches your eye, or your ear, or your heart, something different, every day….
Sometimes the sunrise is brilliant and gorgeous. Other times, perhaps just a small cluster of rose-gold clouds glowing on the horizon. Sometimes the wind puts all the trees in motion. Other times, she said, it’s so quiet, you can’t even hear the traffic from the country road a few miles away. Sometimes you hear the cackling commotion of crows, other times, simply the sweet, low cry of a morning dove.
Every day. Something different. Something…unique.
Something you only see when you pull yourself out of your warm and safe bed, and venture bravely out into the new day.
I’ve thought about that every day since.
I am so grateful for people like Jenny, who gently, sweetly, help me remember what it is to be alive.
And though I’m more of a sunset person than a morning person, today I, too, try to see–with fresh eyes, an open heart, a calm spirit and grateful nature–the beauty of each new day.