Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.
Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.
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When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.
It takes one to know one.
When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.
I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?
My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.
(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)
Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.
Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.
How can they do this? I wondered.
Could I do this?
No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.
But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”
OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!
What kind of endearments would I address myself with?
I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.
But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?
So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …
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The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.
But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …
I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?
Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.
Not a love letter, in other words.
In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.
Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.
It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.
It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.
Almost as bad as self-love.
Wait now, what?
It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.
And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.
Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.
- How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
- If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
- What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
This post grew out of two seeds. The first was a piece by a substacker I follow who heard a phrase on a podcast about pleasure in discipline. It struck her that she’s good at finding pleasure in discipline (think productivity), not so good at being disciplined about pleasure.
This struck me, too. I’m quite disciplined when it comes to achieving goals and being productive, but it never occurs to me to apply that same discipline to pleasure. What a thought! How lazy. How irresponsible …
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Amused at my internal horror, I played with this idea for a day or two. Discipline is like a doorway, I mused. One can walk through it and into pleasure. Being a strong adherent of Work Before Pleasure (even though I know the work never ends), the doorway metaphor seemed appropriate. For a minute. Until I realized standing in the doorway of discipline, unable to move forward into pleasure, is no good, either. And that’s mostly what I do.
Then, I did my Mabon Tarot spread. I do this at every turn of the wheel. Mabon is Fall Equinox. It came and went while I was wading through paperwork, documents, emails, insurance, retirement investments, and the business of changing banks, cards, automatic payments, and transfer networks.
Did I mention paperwork?
Anyway, I did eventually get to pulling cards about a week after Mabon. The last card of the spread, the “overall outcome” card, happened to be the 9 of Stones (my deck), or the 9 of Pentacles (classic deck). In my deck, this card is the card of tradition, signifying reverence for past wisdom and sacrifice, and ancestral memory.
It stopped me in my tracks. Ever since my mother died in August (hence the endless paperwork), I’ve been preoccupied with family, past and present, living and dead, known and (mostly) unknown. Managing my inheritance has been fraught with guilt, shame, anguished memories, bewildered pain.
I don’t feel reverence. Whatever I feel, it’s not that. (Another thing to feel guilty about.) Whatever happened in my past context of family, I’ve found no wisdom in it. Plenty of sacrifice, though, mostly of and by me.
In the five days since I turned this card over, I’ve been thinking about it. It’s the traditional time of year for many cultures to remember ancestors, the time when the veil between the worlds grows thin, the time when the trees release their leaves to decay and sleep before the next season of growth.
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The discipline of pleasure. And the pleasure of discipline.
Reverence for past wisdom and sacrifice; ancestral memory.
I suddenly remembered an old story I used to tell during this time of year, “The Corpse Bride.” It’s a story out of Jewish tradition. A corpse bride, still wearing her wedding finery, mourns her violent death as she was on her way to her wedding. She grieves for her lost opportunities. A living bride comforts her, vowing to fully experience all that the corpse bride dreamed of and lost. The corpse bride is then able to lie back in her grave and rest in peace.
These pieces seemed to answer a question I haven’t consciously asked. Discipline. Pleasure. Unquiet ancestors. Lost opportunities.
How do we connect with our ancestors in a healthy way? We’re only just beginning to understand epigenetics and the ways in which we’re linked to the generations who came before us. I know something about my DNA, but almost nothing about ancestors. When I think of ancestors, I think of a dignified group of people, wise, healthy, connected, at peace. When I think of my family, I think of rejection, dysfunction, and abandonment. I hardly knew my family, even the ones living during my lifetime. What I mostly knew was I didn’t belong, though I was a biological child of the people I called Mom and Dad.
I feel no connection to ancestors. My unconscious assumption is they wouldn’t want me any more than the family I knew did.
However. The fact is I do have blood ties and a biological family tree, as we all do. I have inherited certain characteristics, behaviors, weaknesses, strengths, and wounds through epigenetics as well as genetics and environmental factors. I am now a twig at the end of a branch on the family tree. Neither of my sons have children. I have no daughter. My two cousins are also childless, as is my brother. I am the last female in the last generation of my direct maternal line.
Me. The highly sensitive, passionate, sensual, creative, noncompliant one nobody wanted!
I dealt several Tarot cards of healing and recovery in that Mabon spread. Perhaps they’re not solely about my healing. In conjunction with the season and this powerful card of ancestry, perhaps I have an opportunity to heal myself and comfort? give peace to? palliate? propitiate? the women who came before me, the women who gave me life.
Whatever came before, I’m here now. I breathe. My heart beats. Half the family resources are in my hands. I have the power to make choices. I choose to continue forward into generosity, healing, and joy. I don’t have ancestral traditions or maps. No one ever gave me a map, because they didn’t know the way themselves. Maybe they didn’t want to go in that direction; maybe they stopped looking for the path. It doesn’t matter now.
What matters now is to live … because they can’t. Like the corpse bride, their earthly opportunities are lost. Maybe from the very beginning I was the one with the potential to bring my female ancestors peace at last, not because I complied with their oppression, but because I refused it. Maybe it’s my wisdom that’s needed, the map in my pocket we all must follow.
The women of my family taught me some of the pleasures of discipline. Perhaps I must teach them about the discipline of pleasure, of joy. Which means I must learn it myself first.
I swam yesterday. I’m required to train weekly for my lifeguard position, but that’s only a good excuse. I swim for pure pleasure. I relished every sensual detail, every rhythmic breath, every stretch and flex of my muscles, the silk of the water. I relished the hot shower afterwards, the long drink of water I took, my clean hair and warm and relaxed body. Because they never did, even when alive. Because they never can.
This Saturday morning I ran to the store. I took a deep lungful of the grey, humid air, heavy with the promise of coming rain. I savored it. I chatted with the cashier. I bought myself a luxurious dark chocolate bar. I deliberately splashed through a puddle in the parking lot with my bright yellow duckie boots. I smiled at strangers. I drove home with the window open and the damp air stirring my hair. Because they never did these things. (Well, maybe the chocolate. Mom did like chocolate.) Because now they never can.
I sit here on my couch with the cats, the laptop on my lap. I’m burning a scented candle, surrounded by a couple of sleeveless summer shirts I just bought on sale, my journal, lists, notes, the mail. I’m at peace. I don’t have pain. (Mom always had pain.) I’m content. I have friends I love and who love me. Life is good, filled with projects and plans. In a few minutes I’ll get up, put some laundry in, wash the dishes, stand in the doorway and look at the sky, feel the air stirring as the storm approaches. I won’t do these things because I’m disciplined and productive, or because I must, but because I can. I want to. I choose to. These are the small tasks of my life, and I love my life.
All these I’ll do for myself, and also for them, my ancestors, the women who came before me, my blood, my bone, the wombs who gave me life. Because they can’t.
They’re gone. (May they rest in peace.)
But I’m still here.
- What does the word ‘ancestor’ mean to you? Do you connect it with a real person in your life?
- Are you prepared to be an ancestor? What wisdom would you pass on to younger generations?
- Do you feel connected to the generations of family before you?
- Would you like to be more deeply connected to living family members? What’s in your way?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Today is Mabon. My calendar informs me it’s my weekend to post on Harvesting Stones. Some weeks I’m all ready to go and need do nothing more than push the publish button. This week these are the first words I’ve written, sitting here on my little porch on Saturday morning watching the clouds tatter before the morning sun.
Mabon, or fall equinox, is the balance point during which the hours of daylight and darkness are equal. It mirrors spring equinox and falls between winter and summer solstice. Fall is my favorite time of year, and this fall I’m in the midst of profound transformation. It’s a harvest season like no other in my life.
Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash
Sometimes we are so swept up in the tides of life and death we can do nothing but keep breathing. Days fall away from me, hours drift by and disappear without my awareness. I am focused on the next task, and the next. At the end of each day, I cross to-dos, questions, concerns off my lists, make notes for the next days and weeks, and fall into bed before rising at 4:30 or 5:00 to begin again.
In the midst of the chaos, I remember I choose my life. I’m getting better at just stopping.
I have before me a weekend. Mabon, 2023. It will never come again. A hundred tasks to do. A hundred things to worry about. A hundred choices to make.
Mabon is about balance. Action balanced with rest. Complexity balanced with simplicity. Fear balanced with confidence. Work balanced with play. Grief balanced with joy.
The light; the growing season; the summer of hospice, anguished love, extra caregivers, demented phone calls, medication lists, and, finally, my mother’s death, wane. Trees retain their leaves, but summer’s fierce green fades, bronzing, drying. Sedum and chrysanthemums bloom in the garden. A few sunflowers still flower among the ripening seed heads of their fellows.
Mabon. Balance. And I, a creature, a life among so many other lives, what can I say about it? How can I talk about balance when it feels so far from reach? How will I find balance again on the other side of transformation?
What I hold are impressions, vivid moments of mindfulness and sensuality, unexpected emotions, and the determination to cling fast to myself as autumn rip tides carry me where they will. For I am here, alive, curious, creative, awed, grateful, terrified.
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I’m rereading Susan Fletcher, a favorite author. I just finished Oystercatchers. On the last page, this: “You’re this: an onion bulb. The glint of a rabbit’s eye. The clicking of a beetle’s legs on a leaf; the leaf’s brown edge; dandelions; a pebble; windfall fruit.”
I read no more; I was crying too hard.
My mother is always with me. She has always been with me. My blood, my bone, my sculptor. Now, her death is with me, too, and her dying. Grief has not come to the front door, which I’ve left ajar in anticipation of its coming. It’s crawled through cracked windows, slipped through old screens long-dead cats tore with their claws. It’s drifted down the chimney, come up through gaps in my old wood floor from the cellar, crept along the copper radiator pipes, cool now, but soon to be warming.
I carry bewildered pain within me, like a ripe nut in its shell. How does it happen that a human being, intelligent, talented, competent, with so much to give, can have no feel for life? How can anyone refuse to engage with the mystery, the glory, the terror, the sweetness, and yes, even the pain of what it means to be alive, to love, to be broken and heal over and over?
Isn’t it strange that I find her in the small delights she herself would never have recognized as sustenance, as miracles? Something in Mom was too blind or too broken or perhaps too frightened to allow life to clasp her in its arms. Something. We could never talk about it. I knew it was there, but she would not reveal even the edges of her true experience.
In the end, as the fogs of dementia surrounded her, she was at last able to say she loved me. I have that, at least. And yet, she was demented … But I choose to believe.
Mabon, then, is the autumn garden. Planting blue and white grape hyacinths in drifts with daffodils under the magnolia so in spring they will bloom and naturalize as the seasons come and go. Shoveling and spreading compost mixed with aged cow manure, rich with earthworms and beetles. Pruning, trimming, prying weeds and grass out of cracks in the sidewalk and driveway. Disturbing our small brown toads as I weed and clean up debris in readiness for the blanketing fallen leaves. Dividing and transplanting. Spider webs jeweled with dew. Chilly mornings and gorgeous afternoons. The smell of my catnip, ecstatically trampled and chewed, no doubt discovered by the neighborhood black cat, Winston by name. Planting a few end-of-season sale perennials from our local greenhouse: lavender, black-eyed Susan, sedum. My garden manicure of dirt ground under my fingernails and into my cuticles, always dry and ragged from so much time in the pool. It won’t scrub away, but it will soak off in the pool during my next lesson. Peeling skin and blisters. Bruised knees.
Photo by Dakota Roos on Unsplash
Mabon is the early morning mist rising from the Kennebec River three or four blocks away. It moves up from the surface of the water, along the dark, early-dawn streets and walkways, enveloping the trees, rising to hide the church spire and then gently dissolving as the sun rises while the crows call and the neighborhood rooster announces the dawn.
Mabon is the taste of Apple Pie Chai (Republic of Tea) with a dollop of half n’ half in it, as delicious as it sounds. It’s scented candles burning in the first hours of my day as I journal, make lists, think about the day ahead. Orange, red, and golden candles – orange and spice, apple and cinnamon, sandalwood. One of my closest friends says sandalwood is a “dirty hippy smell.” The thought makes me smile every time I light it. The apples and cinnamon candle sputters companionably because it has a wooden wick (Book&Reverie candles on Etsy).
Mabon is linen sheets dyed a glorious old gold on my bed, textured, heavy, luxurious. It’s socks and sneakers instead of my Keen sandals. It’s my heavy grey shirt jacket with a Buff bandana or a scarf.
Mabon. The Wheel of the Year turns. Seasons and cycles. These things remain. These things are predictable, comforting. They sustain me.
This year, Mabon is also a blizzard of what feels like endless documents, digital, paper, filed away, stacked on my desk, put into binders, stored on USB sticks. Soon, Mom’s house in Colorado will sell, the requisite paperwork will be filed for tax preparers and other legalities. Printing and scanning, FedEx drop offs, notarizing, will eventually be complete. The business of opening accounts with a new bank, obtaining new cards and checks, changing automatic payments and direct deposits, connecting to other accounts, will be finished. Insurance, retirement accounts, paying off debt – all will be managed. I will create new systems, effective and simple.
This week my nearly 20-year-old Subaru failed to pass inspection. I can’t understand it. The driver’s side door handle still works; I don’t really need the others. It drives. I don’t need AC or an audio system. I can manage without being able to open the back hatch. The heat and defrost work if I put in the fuse, and the battery is good as long as I don’t leave the fuse in when I park it. I know exactly where to bring my fist down on the hood when an ice storm seals it shut and I need to open it and put the fuse back in.
It needs $3000 of work. It’s worth $1100.
I need a new car. More tasks. More paperwork. Insurance. Registration.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
These things, the documents, the tasks, the paperwork, phone calls, texts, emails, are nothing but the chrysalis of transformation. I know it. I feel stressed and overwhelmed much of the time, frustrated by delays, miscommunications, jumping through legal and bureaucratic hoops. It’s all temporary, though. It will fall away, along with the autumn leaves. The chrysalis will shred in the dark winds of late autumn and winter, this rip tide will release me, and then … something new.
Through it all is my mother. My memories of her. The pain of my love for her. I’ve inherited so much more from her than assets. There is some comfort, some strange, painful comfort, in remembering to pause. To choose. To stop. To be touched, broken open by the small daily beauties and comforts of life. The taste of creamy tea. The scent of sandalwood. The texture of rich soil. The late copper and garnet blooms of mums. The mist rising into the sun’s golden warmth. Most of all, the painful risk of loving friends, family, the world, life.
Look, Mom. See the little toad? Let’s put him here, under the rhododendron. Remind me to buy toad houses.
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Two weeks ago my 87-year-old demented mother fell in her memory care unit and broke a hip for the second time in less than a year. Eight days later she died in a hospital under the care of Hospice, my brother at her side.
Until I sat down to write this, I was afraid I had lost my words, lost the need to write them, lost the ability to form them into meaning. But I haven’t. I’m still a writer. This remains. That’s a relief.
Oh, I’ve been writing. Lists. Notes. An obituary. Texts. Updates to family and friends. Daily journaling. But it hasn’t been creative writing. It hasn’t been this blog, or my fiction. These last two weeks have passed by, the first in a blur of pity and anguish, and the second in numb relief glazed with exhaustion, and I have not posted or published. I haven’t kept track of the days; they spill into one another, as the days and nights blended together while my mother lay dying and we waited.
For a time words have simply been inadequate to relieve the pressure of my feelings in any organized or coherent way. They flew away from me, leaving a series of kaleidoscopic impressions, sensual details so vivid they frightened me with their power.
While my mother lay dying I reread my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Reading has also largely failed to sustain me during this time. I find myself unable to focus. I read a paragraph or two, and then realize I’ve been sitting staring into space, out the window or into the garden, not hearing, not seeing, not even thinking. Just sitting. But I needed a companion for the night watches, something comforting and familiar. Something innocent.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash
The fan in my window purred during those hours, blowing in cool night air and an occasional moth or mosquito. Every night, when I go to bed, I light a tea light in a candle lantern. When calls or texts reached me, I knew when I opened my eyes if it was before midnight or after, according to whether the candle still burned. Propped up on pillows, glasses on, my small bedside lamp alight, I spoke to Mom’s facility staff, emergency department doctors and nurses. I texted with my family. I read, the well-remembered illustrations making me smile as I communed with Rat, Mole, Badger, and the ridiculous Toad, finding respite for a few minutes before turning off the light and lying awake in the dark room, listening to the fan, feeling my heart beat, resting, breathing, waiting.
While my mother lay dying and after, I’ve stained wooden pallets. My partner and I are building a 3-bin compost system against the back yard fence. We set out sawhorses. I found an old brush, a rag, a stirring stick. We bought stain. I lay a pallet on the sawhorses, brush away dirt and debris, and paint every surface. The raw wood soaks in the oil-based stain, a rich brown color. The brush is more and more frazzled. I’m sloppier than I would be if painting a wall. The pallets are splintery. Some of the boards are split or loose. I bend over, the sun hot on the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mosquitos bite me. Stain drips between the boards as I brush their edges, dappling the sawhorses, falling onto the filthy old cream-colored jeans I’ve been wearing all summer in the garden, and onto my worn-out sneakers, used only for outdoor work now. As I maneuver between the boards, stain smears the skin of my hands and wrists. I kept the phone close, in a patch of shade.
This is the only sustained work I’ve been able to do. Now and then I wash a few dishes. I’ve done a couple loads of laundry. I go out into the garden, note the trimming, pruning, composting, mowing waiting to be done, and turn away. It all feels like too much. I don’t know where to start. It’s impossible to open the garden shed, get the tools, wheel out the wheelbarrow.
But the pallets. I can do that. It’s a simple task, direct. I don’t need to make any choices. Each side takes fifteen or twenty minutes. When I’ve finished a side, I wrap the brush in an old plastic bag, cover the can loosely, let the pallet dry an hour and a half in the sun. Then I turn it over and begin again. Two coats each side. One side after another.
Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash
The smell of stain. The prickly feeling of intense sun on my skin. I think about compost, recycling, breaking down life to sustain new life. I think of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I wonder if I’ll ever use the compost bins without thinking of Mom. I wonder who names the colors of stain and paint. I chose ‘Canyon Brown’ for this project. I vaguely hear birds, cars passing by. Small groups of women walk by in clumps, hospital employees on their lunch break, talking about families, gardens, school starting, hospital gossip. I should be at work, on that same campus, just a ten-minute walk away. I should be, but I’m not. I’m here, staining pallets, waiting for Mom to die and then on bereavement leave.
Am I bereaved? How would I know? I wonder why I don’t care enough to follow the thought. I let it drift away.
I decide I want to make bread. I don’t eat bread often, so rarely make it any more. But my rosemary is bushy and ready to be harvested, and someone brought fresh home-grown garlic into work to share before … before all this. So I make a sponge, stirring together milk, a little sugar, yeast, water. I chop fresh rosemary and garlic, very fine. I take flour out of the freezer and let it warm. The dough is heavy under my hands, sticky at first and gradually becoming supple and smooth. The earthy smells of garlic and rosemary vanquish the smell of stain in my nostrils. I turn the dough, kneading. The timer ticks off seconds and minutes. I clean the bowl, grease it, use a linen towel to cover it for rising. I put it in the oven for safe keeping, because the cats are likely to lie on it or step in it, or nibble at it if I leave it out. The bread, like the pallets, is a project in stages. I don’t have to focus on any one step for more than a few minutes. I move between the kitchen and the back yard with my phone, not thinking, not planning, just taking the next step, and the next. I can’t remember times, so I write them down. About 90 minutes for the stain to dry. An hour for the bread to rise. Another 90 minutes for the pallet to dry. Another hour for the shaped loaves to rise. Another 90 minutes. An hour for baking.
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash
At the end of the day, I have two enormous round loaves of bread to cool, slice, and put in the freezer. This batch will last me for a year. I have finished another pallet. I leave it on the sawhorses to dry overnight. My stained hands smell like garlic.
I haven’t cried since the last night call, my brother telling me Mom was gone. Perhaps I cried all my tears before she went. I receive condolences with all the grace I can muster. People talk to me about God and heaven. They talk to me about Mom. They talk to me about their own experiences of death. I try to be gracious. I try to look like I’m listening, like I’m there. With my brother and sons, my partner, I can be real. The faces of my friends comfort me. They don’t need anything from me. They don’t ask for anything. I can see their concern, their love for me, their sorrow. They hug me, and smile. They talk to me about small things, the daily things I’ve lost track of – family, friends, outings, work. I pick up a friend’s daughter and feel almost normal, doing an ordinary thing, a manageable task I cannot fail.
I realize part of my feeling of unreality is rooted in a loss of identity. I catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and pause. I rarely look at myself in the mirror. This woman, who is she? She isn’t the disappointing daughter any more. She can’t be, if there’s no mother to disappoint. What else is she? Who else is she? I look into my own eyes and feel no shame, no guilt. Did Mom take them with her? How will I navigate my life without them on my shoulders, without the knowledge that Mom is alone, suffering, needing? For fifty years I was at her side, day and night, year after year, ineffectual, helpless to fix or heal her physical pain, her dysfunction. Feeling my failure, my powerlessness, knowing I more often made it worse than better as time went on, even though she clung closer and closer to me as she aged. She could not release me and I almost waited too long to release myself.
But the geographical distance I put between us brought no real release. She still suffered. She declined, grew confused. Her body aged and began to run down. She was just as lonely without me as she was with me, just as emotionally remote, just as relentlessly needy. She cut herself off from me, but I still carried her. Internally, I still orbited around her. I still agonized for her.
I still loved her. I always loved her. I accepted she could not find me lovable, but it made no difference. She was my mother, and I loved her. All I ever wanted was for her to be well, and happy, but I could not make it so, and in her eyes it was my responsibility to fill her need. Indeed, she told me long ago her physical pain started with her pregnancy with me. I accepted the blame, and was heartbroken, and have tried desperately to make up for it ever since.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Now Death has come to stop her suffering. Has mine stopped, too? I don’t know. I’m too numb to tell. But I feel different. I feel … released. I prayed for her release and freedom, not mine, but perhaps they were linked. Many times a day I think of her, hear her voice in my head, and I realize with a painful clench of my heart she’s gone. It’s over. I can’t humiliate her anymore because of what I wear, how my hair looks, what I do, who I sleep with, or, most of all, what I write. She’s moved beyond humiliation. I can’t fail her anymore. And that’s a soaring, joyful, unbelievable thought. I can’t fail her anymore.
I wonder if I’ll finally feel good enough, if I’ll do a good enough job, live a good enough life. Might I simply enjoy my small talents, my joyful work, my community, my garden? Might I immerse myself in the loveliness of life without the gnawing guilt of knowing I’m happy when she’s not, I’m companioned when she’s not, I’m relaxed and rested and peaceful when she’s not, I’m laughing when she’s not?
The last couple of times I spoke to Mom, I told her it was okay to rest now, she could let go, be at peace. We told her her loved ones and animals were well and happy, and she could relax.
I told her, and I meant it. Was I telling myself, too?
She could not release me, yet I am released. Did Death break the chains when he gathered her in? Or now, at last, have I released myself, now that she’s moved entirely out of my power and knowledge?
As I write this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. I have finished another pallet. I have written. I have sat in the sun, read a paragraph or two at a time of an old Edna Ferber novel, rested my eyes on the garden. The lily stems are turning dry and brown, as are the leaves. Sunflowers bloom. The sun is hot. The phone has been sitting on my kitchen table all morning, silent, as I go in and out. I have balanced my checking account, scheduled a private swim lesson in a home pool, ironed a tablecloth and three napkins. Tomorrow I go back to work.
A new page of my life has turned. I can’t read it yet. It’s enough to sit with it in my lap, letting my gaze wander over blue sky and afternoon clouds, the garden, our old cars, the worn wooden boards of the porch, the bruise on my left knee, the mosquito bites on my right arm, the smears of stain on my hands. It’s too bright in the sun to read this new page, too hot, too much effort. I’ll read it later.
I dare to be at peace.
Daughter’s Dream (July 2014)
I dreamt I carried my mother.
The car had slipped out of her control
with a blind will of its own,
and I thought
I knew she shouldn’t be driving.
We landed in water.
I swam to her and held her in my arms.
Then the water was gone.
I carried my mother,
but she left my embrace,
slipping free of her embattled flesh.
Irrevocably, I felt her go.
I was alone.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
Empty beds stood all around me
but the sheets were disordered and dank,
Smeared with shit.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
There was no clean place to lay her down.
I carried the vacant body of my mother,
seeking to slip into my own freedom,
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I’m living inside this poem right now:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
I want to escape this haunted place, walk away, never look back, forget, and wander among green trees, feeling their breath on my face. I want the blessing of the rain on my skin, to plunge my hands into rich soil, lie open to birdsong and the sun’s touch.
I want to be free.
Yet, again and again, I find myself crouching in front of that shattered visage, tracing the frown, the wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command, unable to leave it or look away. I remember, and weep, and try to understand how something so mighty, so powerful, can fall and break apart, become nothing more than a colossal wreck in a desert in an antique land, unvisited, unremarked, nothing but time’s debris.
I was born in the shadow of those stone legs. I watched the sculptors at work, perfecting, shaping. I learned to worship Ozymandias, to make myself small before him, to endure his stony displeasure and indifference.
I did not know his name for a long time, not until I read this poem in high school. He was called Money. He was called Status. He was called Power. He was king of kings – that I never doubted. He required unceasing sacrifice; though I sacrificed everything I had, the sneer and wrinkled lip looked down upon me in infinite contempt. I looked upon his works and saw destruction and anguish. I saw lies and shattered lives and I despaired.
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I left. I crawled away under the weight of my own inadequacy and unworthiness, across the lone and level sands, feeling his stone gaze upon me. I left, and one day I got to my feet and walked, and then I remembered how to dance, and swim, and the world opened up for me, showing me friendship, healing and joy.
Then, across the years, across the miles, Ozymandias fell, and the ground of my being has shuddered and convulsed with the impact ever since.
Understand, when he fell it all fell. Secrets lay revealed. Lies tumbled naked in the desert sun. Ozymandias, so carefully sculpted by generations before me, disintegrated. I understood then what I was taught to call Money was really named Fear. Status was in fact Shame. The wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command were not love, were never love. The king of kings lay forgotten, impotent, slowly wearing away to sand.
“Look on my works … and despair.”
It’s all gone, the gods of my childhood, the king of kings, the money, the status, the false power.
Except for me. I am not gone.
In Maine, I eat and sleep. I journal and write. I walk to work, talk to people, laugh, teach. I sweat on the elliptical and exercise in the pools. I pay bills, make plans, file papers. I buy groceries and cat food. I do laundry and clean. I work in the garden. I’m distracted and absentminded, prone to sleeplessness and unexpected fits of tears welling from some deep unaware place. Or, on the other hand, maybe that place is all I’m truly aware of right now.
I talk and text and email to staff at the memory care center in Colorado where my mother resides, to her hospice team, to people at the agency we’ve now hired by request to provide extra caregiving. I hear about dementia, combative behavior, falls, sabotaged bed alarms, incontinence, sleeplessness, anxiety, medication adjustment. I am called to calm Mom down as though that was ever possible, as though she trusts me or ever took any comfort from me.
And part of me kneels in the desert, watching the family money (a mere pittance, judged by today’s standards rather than those of 100 years ago) and pride, that towering edifice more important than love, more important than health and happiness, more important than anything, sink into the desert like water. Is the desert powerful enough to cleanse it? Shattered Ozymandias still frowns, wrinkles his lip, sneers his cold command, but his works have disappeared even as he himself wears away.
Do I grieve or rejoice? I try to understand. I try to feel something more than despair at the waste of lives, at the dearth of love.
One thing I know: I will not stay here, beside Ozymandias. It’s a cursed place, a dark place. I will leave it to the circling vultures, the sun, the wind, and the silence. I will leave it to Time to wear away the sneer, the frown, the wrinkled lip, the trunkless legs. I left once, and I will leave again. I know this desert is a small place and the world is wide. I know who I am now. I know what love is, and that I’m capable of it. I am no longer alone.
I would have saved my family if I could have, but my gifts have no monetary value. What I have to give, what I am, cannot be bought or sold. I do not accrue a good rate of interest. I was not judged a sound investment. I did not increase my family’s status. Ozymandias, king of kings, was incapable of seeing or knowing me, being far too dazzled with his mighty works, dissolving now into sand while I myself, still vital and alive, pause to find absolution and mourn, groping for a way forward, watching it all decay.
- What idols have fallen in your life?
- What family secrets have you discovered?
- Do you find comfort in the eventual fall of what once seemed all-powerful, or does it frighten you?
- How have you challenged your family’s definition and expectations of you?
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