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.

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.

AM I A FALCON, A STORM, OR THE GREAT SONG?

For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writings workshop for people who are grieving the death of someone close, at a non-profit hospice agency here in Keene. Using journaling, simple poetry writing exercises and sharing our scribblings, we gently help each other move forward in our grieving process.

These classes are always powerful, small miracles made visible in the world. They’ve been so successful, I’m developing an art collage workshop, too. We had our second class last night, and I’m amazed how quickly the group has come together already.

In all these sessions, I’m always anxious when I walk into the room. I remember calling my supervisor, the wise woman known as Lorraine, my first week in. “These people are in such pain!” I exclaimed. “I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or be too flippant, and hurt them more.”

“People are pretty tough,” Lorraine said frankly. “Trust me, you’re not going to break them!”

She was right, of course. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and strong these people are, shattered as they are by grief. They shine brightly. I learn so much from them, much much more than I teach them.

But I still worry at the start of every session, and I’m anxious at every meeting. When we write, first thing, the three words that describe how we’re feeling, mine are almost always, “Anxious, Unprepared, Clumsy.”

Until the miracle happens. The power of writing what is in our hearts, and sharing our pain, is a balm. The magic of hearing the voices throughout the ages who have suffered the same pain, the same unbearable sense of loss, echoing in our modern day hearts, somehow helps the healing process.

And by the end of class, we’ve wept, we’ve hugged, we’ve shared, we’ve remembered, and we’ve laughed. All in one brief hour.

The last few days, I’ve been pulling together more poetry to bring to these sessions. Here’s one I found last week:

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE DIED
ELEH EZKERAH – These We Remember

‘Tis a fearful thing
To love
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
Love,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
To love
What death can touch.

Judah Halevi or
Emanuel of Rome – 12th Century

I read this to the group. “This was written over a thousand years ago,” I said. “Someone felt this way, and wrote these words to you, people he knew he would never know nor meet. He wrote these words because he knew you would be here, today, and he knew you would need to hear them.”

I also love that people now share their favorite poetry with me. I mentioned that I needed more poems on loss and grieving to some friends. One said, “Oh, you have to read Rilke! He’s good for grieving!” An odd phrase, but I found it to be so true. I found this today:

“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

And as I wrap up my preparations for the last class in this session, I find this one grabbing at my heart:

Circles

I live my life in big circles
that surround all things,
that circle around all that is.
Maybe i will not complete the last circle,
But i will attempt it.

I circle around God
that ancient tower,
and I have been circling
for centuries and millennia,

And i do still not know: am i a falcon,
a storm, or the Great Song.

– Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Br. David Steindl-Rast

Am I a falcon, a storm, or the Great Song?

I don’t even know what that means.

And yet I sense it means…everything.

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.

WRITING IT OUT #1: Goodbye, Mrs. Koebnik, and Thank You!

This week concluded my very first workshop in grief journaling at Home Health Care and Community Services. I’m a hospice and bereavement volunteer there, and offered to teach their very first workshop.

I think it was a success. I didn’t hurt anyone, and the participants want to do another round of sessions. Yay! But as always, as much as I taught, I learned.

As always, I’m free to share my thoughts and observations, but not those of the folks in the workshop. We respect each other’s privacy: What’s said in group, stays in group. Over the next few days, I’ll share what I’ve learned about writing and grief.

The last exercise was writing a letter from our loved one who has died. It was framed beautifully: No matter how complicated the death or the loved one, we envisioned them being in a ‘higher place’. For some, that place was spiritual. For others, it was simply imagining that person speaking from their best self–past the suffering, past their emotional suffering, past the hardship.

I quoted something my friend Teo said to me years ago. “I like to think that everyone is doing the best they can,” she said one day, when I was complaining about a mutual friend. Such a generous statement, from a generous woman.

I also shared a story another friend told me years ago. Her husband was told he had less than a week to live, and that turned out to be true. His undetected illness had changed him emotionally. His physical discomfort (exhaustion, anxiety) manifested itself in harsh actions and words. The last few years had been hard for both of them.

But those last few precious days, much was healed. He had a chance to say how he really felt about her, and how sorry he was that he had been so difficult. As hard as it was to lose the love of her life, my friend received a precious gift in their last tender hours together.

Imagine them there, I told the group. They are in a place where all is forgiven, where anger and fear and frustration are gone. All that’s left is love, their ‘better self’. What would they say to you?

All of us cried as we wrote. Not a dry eye in the room!

But I was surprised by my reaction. Because my person has been dead for over 30 years. And she was simply a neighbor down the street I had befriended.

So of all the people I’ve lost–friends and family, from suicide to cancer, why did I write a letter from her?

I was doing graduate work in education, one of the happiest periods of my life. I had love, I had a career goal, I was focused and proactive, in control of my destiny. Our neighborhood was beautiful–full of trees and parks, with lovely older homes on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. There was an ice cream dairy bar down the street, a neighborhood elementary school close by, and a mix of young families, older students, retirees. We all knew each other and socialized often.

Louise Koebnik, 84, lived down the street from me, in the house she was born in.. I knew her for about four years. She was an active and plain-spoken woman. Her husband had died young and left her to raise three children, alone. They all grew up to be well-educated and talented people with loving families of their own.

She worked hard her whole life. Even in her 80’s, she had an incredible vegetable garden, with tomatoes grown in a bath tub in the back yard (to protect their roots from those of the poisonous black walnut tree that grew nearby.) She gathered the nuts from that same tree each fall, laboriously going through all the steps that make them edible, and made walnut cookies with them.

I was one of the few people invited into her home for coffee and chats. She was forthright and said what was on her mind. I adored her.

My favorite memory of her is this: A snowstorm in winter. Big flakes of snow falling. Mrs. Koebnik (no matter how often she asked me to call her Louise, it just seemed more polite to call her Mrs. Koebnik) standing on her sidewalk (she had a corner lot, with two long sidewalks) wearing her old-fashioned big wool coat, a scarf tied around her head, and big clunky boots. Bearing a broom, and sweeping as the snow fell. She refused to ask for help shoveling, and once the snow accumulated too much, she couldn’t dig herself out. But she would sweep as the snowflakes fell, moving up and down her sidewalks, keeping the walk clear until it finally stopped. I still laugh as I think of her, looking like an old babushka, determined and vigilant against the storm.

One day I got a call from Jon, my husband, telling me terrible news: Mrs Koebnik had been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

She was the last victim of a serial killer, a young drifter who had left a trail of death and violence through many states. He was eventually caught and is serving life sentences in prison.

For almost 30 years, her death has haunted me. It seemed horrible that someone could lead such an exemplary life, providing so much, asking for so little, and spend her last hour on this earth in hell. I agonized for her. I feared for myself.

So where do we find peace in this? There is no “bright side”, no lesson to be learned. No solace. For me, her entire life was rewritten by this one terrible act.

Bereavement training helped. I learned about “complicated death”–death by suicide, by murder.

I began to have forgiveness for myself, for finding it so hard to let go.

Small healing thoughts began to form. I began to wonder if Mrs. K had fought back, which gave me some comfort. I realized her death is truly an anomaly.

And the letter ‘she’ wrote to me was wonderful:

Dear Luann,
I’ve been listening to your thoughts, your confusion, your despair and sadness about my death. I was a little miffed at first, I have to admit. It wasn’t YOU who was raped, beaten and strangled–it was ME!!

And it was no picnic either, I can tell you.

But mercifully, it was short. Shorter than childbirth, though with a sadder ending. No baby in my arms at the end, just….gone.

But at least the pain was over and done.

And I know it’s upsetting to think about and it’s hard to hear the story and it’s a terrible thing to think might happen to you.

But Luann, girlie, I want you to know this…..

My life was a good one, and a long one, full of joy and sadness, hardship and love, success and happiness. I worked hard, and I did what I had to do.

And I’d do it all over again, in a heartbeat.

What that kid did to me–well, that wasn’t right, and he’s a sick one, no doubt about it. But he can’t hurt me anymore. And he can’t hurt anybody else, ever.

But if you let this sit and eat way at your heart, then girlie, you are LETTING him hurt YOU.

And that ain’t right.

You must be smarter, and stronger than that. Life is hard enough without borrowing someone else’s troubles.

And life is too wonderful to give over even one more minute to that. Not one more minute.

So you go hug your kids and kiss your husband, and rejoice. Stand in the snow with a broom, if you want to remember me. And make cookies. And eat ’em, too.

Now I’ve got to get going. It was nice hearing from you again. Keep your chin up, kiddo.

Love,
Louise

I was astonished at what I had written. I could hear her voice, I could see the words she’d used. It was her.

I cried. And as I cried, I realized my poem, Burial Song, I actually wrote for her. (I had never realized that before.)

And so this week I have peace in my heart. Not cured. But healed.

And that is the power of writing, and that is the lesson I learned this week.

HELPING OTHERS WHO GRIEVE

I’m pulling together materials to help me run a writing workshop for bereavement support. I’ve been browsing local bookstores and surfing the net for resources.

I found a wonderful little book, 101 WAYS YOU CAN HELP: How to Offer Comfort and Support to Those Who Are Grieving by Liz Aleshire.

A quick flip through the book revealed succinct, concrete ways to help someone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one.

I like how the book is organized, by whether the person who needs your support is a family member, a friend, a co-worker, etc.

I like that the suggestions work. That same day, I called a friend who’d just lost someone. Normally, I’d invite the person over for a meal. Liz’s book suggested taking a meal to them. Sure enough, the “dinner here” and “dinner out” invitations were refused. But the “How about we come to your house with dinner?” invitation was received with surprise and gratitude.

I like that some of the suggestions are counter-intuitive. For example, she says sometimes you gotta be a little pushy. This echoes something I learned in my bereavement training. For example, we are urged to call people even if they don’t answer the phone. The grieving person may not feel like talking. But they appreciate knowing that you’ve called, even in only to leave a message. So call them regularly, even if it feels like you’re talking into space. You’re not.

But what I like best about the book is the back story.

Liz Aleshire lost her 16-year-old son to bone cancer. So she knows grief personally. For thirteen years, she carried the devastation of his loss.

And Liz died before her book was finished–literally of a broken heart. Health issues complicated a series of heart attacks that finally ended her life.

If that weren’t poignant enough, Liz’s book was finished after her death–by her friends. The members of her small writing group came together to care and support Liz through her trials. And they helped her finish the book. Careful to retain Liz’s distinctive “voice”, they wrote and edited from Liz’s outline and drafts, bringing the book to publication.

All of this is astonishing. But the final kicker is…

I know one of the authors
.

Paula Chaffee Scardamalia and I met when she interviewed me for an article in the May 2000 issue of The Crafts Report magazine. We were both taking our craft as far as we could, doing the show circuit, acquiring galleries to carry our work, etc. Everything was bright and shiny, all opportunities full with the promise of success.

I really enjoyed talking with her; she’s a fellow fiber artist, warm, insightful and a great writer. We emailed back and forth for awhile, but then we lost touch.

And then big things happened in the world, things that changed us deeply. Our ideas about “success” made a paradigm shift. Many of us now look in other places beyond fame and fortune for what the work of our hands can accomplish, in the world and in our hearts.

To see her name in this book was a wonderful example of synchronicity. I’ve learned that, just as I’ve added writing and hospice to my life, she does less weaving (mostly custom orders now) and more writing and life coaching.

She’s pleased that I find Liz’s book so appealing. It’s a reminder that the good we do lives after us. She hopes the book will find its way into the hands of more people.

Because grief eventually touches us all. Where there is love, or the hope of love, or the failure of love, there is grief. Only in indifference are we spared. And indifference is a high price to pay, to be spared the pain of grief.

And I marvel, once again, at how the threads of our lives touch, entwine, pass on…and touch again.

So here’s my shout-out for Liz’s book. I’m going to order extra copies for our hospice library. It’s already helped me out. I hope you’ll find it helpful, too.

ANOTHER LEAP INTO THE SKY

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here that I took the next step in my hospice training. I did bereavement training a few months ago–sort of my current “major” in hospice work. My brain and heart continue to expand.

I still love my hospice work. I just felt called to explore the next steps–what comes when a client’s journey is done, and the survivors are left to pick up the pieces of their lives. My supervisor Lorraine says, bereavement support kicks in “when the casseroles stop coming.”

I’ve joined a drop-in bereavement group at local hospice facility as a volunteer assistant facilitator. This group of people have been through so much pain and distress. They soldier on, sharing their grief with others who are on the same journey. I am humbled in their presence.

Last week I was asked if I’d be interested in facilitating a grief journaling support group. I could almost feel my heart leap as I exclaimed, “Oh, YES, I’d LOVE to do that!”

And of course, within ten minutes, I was paralyzed by the responsibility. I…can’t…..do…..this!!!!

I’m implementing my standard strategy of trying to ignore my absolutely bonkers left brain (committee/critic/commentator) and begging my right brain (faith/hope/intuition) to step in.

So today I’m sending frantic emails to my poor bereavement supervisor, who is trying to be on vacation this week. I start each missive with an apology and a note to just let it sit in her in-box until she gets back, followed by a list of ideas, thoughts, questions.

And of course, I worry that she’s already regretting asking me to do this.

I’m researching grief journaling, sending away for books on poetry-writing.

And as always, I’m trying to remember my friend Quinn McDonald’s advice. When I’m frantic, I take a minute to see where that’s coming from. Hmmmmm….the fear this experiment won’t be perfect. Which makes it….about me. And this work is definitely not about me.

I am astonished how tied up this all is with my artwork. The themes of healing and connection, of what it means to be human, of what binds us together and sets us apart… All currently a big ball of soft, tangled yarn in lovely, shimmery colors.

And as my little diamond dove Malchik wings his way around my studio and lands on my shoulder, curious to see what the frantic clicking noise is I make with my fingers on my keyboard, I think of that haunting poem by Rumi:

The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.

— Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

The workshop runs in February, once a week for a month. Wish me luck. Send me your thoughts & suggestions, too.

I HATE WORDS (and Zen)

Sometimes I can be in the moment for like….60 seconds? If that. But today is one of those times where I just can’t fit the wisdom of zen into my life.

It’s one of those days where I made the mistake of comparing my words to someone else’s words, and theirs were better. A day where I realize how really, really, really jealous I am that someone else’s words have more recognition than mine–and MINE are better.

A day where my son and I, and my husband and I, exchanged all these words, sharp and angry and cutting…and I have never felt so far apart from understanding either of them, nor they me.

A day where someone’s careless words, admonishing me to “hurry up, people are waiting on you” erased my happy little moment. A day of my words, spilled in anger at a telemarketer–why didn’t I simply take a few seconds to be kind rather than righteously indignant and pompous? A day of words I used to try to curry favor from someone, hating myself the instant they were out of my mouth.

Even my shipment of custom mats for my new work turned out to be the wrong size. Because–yep, you guessed it–I used the wrong words to describe what I wanted.

I’m ready to spill over, frustrated with my lack of patience, my lack of self-respect, my lack of insight and tact and balance. I found myself actually crying in the shower. That time of month? Hah. That train has left the station, baby, and good-bye.

Today, I wish I’d had no words. Bah! Who needs ’em?? They just get in the way of everything.

In the moment? I HATE this moment!!

But then I remember the sweet words I gave my horse today. She met me halfway when I asked her to do something. “Good girl!” I trilled. I know she heard me, too.

I remember I tried to make it up to my son. I reached out, let him know I’m just trying to figure out how to be a good mom to him. “I love you,” I said, as his door closed in my face. I could almost here him mutter “Whatever…” behind it.

Soon I will have to say, “I’m sorry” to my husband. Even though I still think I was right. I’m trying to remember that new mantra we’re working on: “Who’s right?? Who cares?!!” It’s the “us” that matters.

Hospice is teaching me that I can’t count on words, not all the time. Sometimes, someday, they won’t be there, and sometimes they just are not enough anyway.

But for now, I realize I just want to look up again at that beautiful New Hampshire sky, so blue today, so swept through with lacy sheets of clouds fanned by unseen winds above, and in the silence so deep I could hear the wings of a wren a dozen yards away, I, too, yearn to hear a sweet, small voice trill…

Good girl!