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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you. In the dark country of your life it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years of neglect the embers of what you have known rest contented in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains, tell me all the things you have not loved. Their shadows will tell you they have not gone, they became this night from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end, your heart stammers with grief and regret, in this final night you will lean down at last and breathe again on the small campfire of your only becoming.
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“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
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And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
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It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
Share three things you have not loved.
Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
A few weeks ago I came across a quote: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” Backtracking through multiple sources, I ran it down to a woman named Jamie Anderson who wrote it in her blog, which is now gone. The quote went viral.
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It hit me right in the heart.
I’ve written previously about my struggle with intense love that is not received. I don’t mean unrequited romantic love. I mean flesh-and-bone love, blood love, the helpless love and connection we feel for family.
My strategy all my life has been to divert the love I feel but can’t give to the intended recipient (at least not in a way I feel they receive and believe in it or even want it) to others who do need and want it. This practice relieves some of the pressure in my heart, but there are several ways it can go badly wrong. Plenty of people in the world will suck up all the love, attention, and support we give them, but have no thought, or perhaps no ability, of returning it. In this case, my painful, overfull heart becomes withered and empty and I have to detach the vampire I’ve attracted.
I’m not looking for a place to dispose of my love like it’s a worn-out sock. I’m looking for a place where it does some good. Because that’s at the heart of feeling love one can’t give – the futilityof it. What’s the point of love if we have no place to give it, if love has nowhere to go?
There are places where I feel my love has been useful. Animals. Children. Hospice work. Emergency rescue work. But, aside from animals and my own children, none of these are intimate relationships sustaining me day-to-day. Animals, sadly, have shorter lifespans than we do. Children, inevitably, grow up and find their own lives, which may or may not include us.
I’ve been thinking about this quote for several weeks, intending to blog about it at some point, but always turning away from it into other subjects. It hurts to think about it. I know intellectually writing about pain helps, but loyalty to those who refuse my love stops me. Or maybe shame? Or maybe guilt? (If a family member won’t accept our love, surely the logical conclusion is we’re a terrible person?) Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or be unfair, or humiliate another person.
I can always find something to write about. I’ve been posting weekly for six years. But there’s much I do not write about. Too painful. Too intimate. Too risky. Too messy.
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Sometimes life is like a boxing match. I have good stamina, and I’m dogged as hell. I’m organized and efficient. I try to think clearly about my choices. I’m thoughtful. But every now and then life knocks me down. Hard.
Usually I cope with vigorous exercise, writing, getting a good night’s sleep, and processing with a friend. I get back on my feet and keep going.
But every few years the blows keep coming, hard and fast, unexpected hooks and jabs.
This has been one of those times. I’m nursing my third upper respiratory infection in four weeks. Not COVID, but one of the many other plagues circulating this fall. I’ve once again pulled out the essential oil, the powdered vitamin C, the elderberry and echinacea tea, the nasal spray, the cough and cold medicine. I don’t usually take medication of any kind, but on this third round I feel so bruised and battered I’m choosing to. I’m tired out.
In between this virus, which arrived Thursday night, and the last one, which departed Monday, we discovered our dirt-floored cellar was ankle deep in water due to several inches of recent rain which caused some flooding. It’s going to take more than a thousand dollars to fix it.
Then, yesterday (Can it only be yesterday? It feels like weeks.) I was informed about the illness and injury of a family member, one of those people I love most in the world who is unable to receive it and has amputated me from their life. Now, a long way away from me as I sit here in Maine with a Kleenex box, another family member (another of my dearly loved ones) is carrying the whole situation on their shoulders: the hospital, surgery, legalities, finances, paperwork. My presence would only exacerbate the situation and make everything worse. I know it. The family member managing the crisis knows it.
So here I sit, wretched, broke, sick, and I can do nothing – nothing. A lifetime of petrified love weighs like a stone in my chest. It has nowhere to go. It never has. It’s not useful. It’s not wanted. But I can’t stop feeling it. It’s part of me.
And I’m down for the count. I’m all the way down and nothing in me is ready to get back up. My eyes are swollen. I can’t stop crying. I don’t know where the cold begins and the grief ends. All this grief, a lifetime of grief. It feels endless, bottomless. I don’t think there are enough tears in the world to wash it away. I can do nothing but wait for news and try to be a long-distance support to the one who will accept my support. I can’t seem to get and stay well. I can’t fix the cellar. A plumber in hip boots with a new sump pump will do that early next week.
How can the truest, deepest love we feel be refused and rejected?
Rhetorical question. I don’t expect an answer. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever asked that question. Some things just can’t be understood. They’re not fair. They’re not explicable. They’re just life. I learned some time ago to cease arguing with what is.
And what is, right now, is grief. I can’t contain it, control it, avoid it, distract myself from it. I won’t share it, except in words. I’m simply letting it wash through me, surrendering to it. Maybe that’s what I need most today. Maybe the laundry, emptying the trash (all that soggy Kleenex), my usual weekend posting and publishing, raking leaves, dumping the compost, washing dishes, and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t get back on my feet until I’ve chosen to just stay down first.
How long do we have to cry to drain a lifetime of grief?
Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
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This is not my usual kind of post, but it is a stay down, raw, naked one. It’s what I’ve got this week. It’s the best I’ve got.
On another note, I am expanding the site. I’m adding excerpts from my books to The Webbd Wheel page. Scroll down past the overview for the excerpts. If you’re intrigued, you can go to my Substack page and read for free as I serial publish my fiction. You’ll find extensive archives, so you can read from the beginning if you wish.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Autumn’s smoke and flame are with us again in central Maine. The land’s lush summer garments fray and fade, withering into dusty, brittle rags of leaf, flower and stem.
More than a dozen apple trees grow on our 26 acres, everything from small, hard green apples too sour for anything but cider to large, sweet, white-fleshed beauties, fragrant and delicious.
The first frost or two brings my favorite eating apples to the peak of perfection, and last weekend we knew it was time to harvest if we wanted any of the fruit. A friend, with three children in tow, participated in a nature walk at a nearby lake and came to sit in the sun with a picnic lunch and pick apples.
A crisp, sunny autumn day, three eager children and apple picking. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a gorgeous day.
Apple picking, as anyone knows who’s done it, is about so much more than selecting the most perfectly waxed, polished, shaped and colored specimens from a grocery store pyramid and putting them in a cart.
Apple picking is about muddy shoes and knees and floppy hats. It’s the smell of tick and mosquito spray, rotting fruit and browning ferns; the texture of twig, bark, raspberry cane, moss, and the waist-high brittle, dry aster blossoms.
Apple picking is a lesson in sharing. Many creatures enjoy autumn’s bounty. Birds peck at the fruit. The deer take bites out of windfalls. Worms leave telltale dark tunnels. Wasps burrow head first into the flesh, ecstatic and writhing.
We don’t know how old any of our trees are, but their gnarled and disheveled condition suggests they’re quite old. Many have hollow trunks and a great deal of dead wood. The one we picked from is lying almost on its side, half uprooted, the base and uncovered root ball couched in moss. Crawling under the tree, carefully avoiding wasps, nettles, poison ivy and other hazards, one finds a damp, low-ceilinged shelter, roofed by the tree’s branches and floored in muddy ground. This particular tree grows over a spring; doubtless the reason why it fell in the first place. The deer have lain in this sheltered place. Their scat is everywhere, and I see their prints in the mud and the smooth hollows where they’ve lain together on the ground.
Apples thump softly around me as the children enthusiastically wield the apple picker, an old mop handle on which is attached a cloth bag suspended from toothy jaws that pull high apples off their branches. The ripe fruit falls easily with a nudge.
Apple picking is wonderful therapy for those of us recovering from perfectionism. Each piece of fruit is uniquely shaped and blotched with color, ranging from pale green to pink. Some are patched with brown, rough areas. Some are speckled with green spots. Windfalls bruise and split, an invitation to insect plunder. Heavy with juice, sitting comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, each is a lovely, individual thing rather than a clone lined up with other clones in neat rows for display.
As the children pass the apple picker around and bag the fruit, we adults talk casually of apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and drying. I remember the ache in my right hand from processing pounds of apples when I lived in Colorado and had children to feed. In the fall, my food dehydrator was on for days, four trays stacked with plums, apples and pears I picked from trees and used for homemade granola, trail mix, fruit leather and hot cereal.
For days I have been watching golden leaves loosen and fall. Fall, for me, is always a meditation on loss and surrender. On my hands and knees under the tree, retrieving windfalls, the smell of damp earth, rotting fruit and drying leaves and bracken in my nostrils, the sound of the children murmuring and laughing and my friend and partner talking, I feel a pang of grief about what I have lost. My own small boys, firm-bodied, grubby, loving, hilarious, maddening and mischievous; the big-hearted, foolish yellow lab who helped me raise them, seem for a moment to be there, with me.
Then, just as quickly, they’re gone, vanished back into the past, and I feel slightly ashamed of my nostalgia and wipe away a tear before anyone sees. After all, I know children grow up and faithful, foolish dogs can’t live forever. My grief is followed then by a pang of gratitude for what has been, what is this day, and possibilities and adventures in the future.
Fall is a time to think about harvest, both the harvest that keeps our hands, tools and dehydrators busy and the harvest of our hearts and minds. The leaves that made the summer green are falling now, in a final glorious display. The nights lengthen, temperatures and humidity drop, and soon we’ll bring the outdoor furniture cushions and houseplants in from the front porch for the winter.
I do not count the blessings of my personal harvest. I feel them. The wordless embrace of friends. The weight of a child in my lap. Laughter. The exchange of support, affection, information, and a really good book. Deep sleep. A healthy, active body. The muscular rhythm of walking, swimming, dancing and exercise. A small group of children learning to swim, blowing bubbles, coughing, grinning, giggling, splashing and spluttering, like so many wriggling otters, joyful and triumphant as they master floating, kicking, and rhythmic breathing. The opportunity to be of service, to make a contribution to others, to share resource.
I’m equally grateful for what has been lost, though my gratitude mingles with grief. Every autumn, the trees guide me in the work of letting go, of surrender, of faith and trust in the natural cycle of life and season. This year, I’ve released objects, clothing, financial commitments, noise, clutter, destructive patterns of behavior, and, painfully, some illusions.
Without all this stuff, the true shape of myself and my life begins to emerge, and I’m less apologetic and more confident. A deep well of creativity bubbles in the center of my experience, cool and clear and clean, moss and stone and the scent of water.
While the horses strain at the harrow in a darkening field, I pour red wine over lentils in an iron kettle. The full moon rising beyond the farm graveyard is as round as a well, and the cold autumn wind has the taste of distant water.
Working in a fitness/rehabilitation center in January makes our cultural and personal obsession with our bodies and looks inescapable. All day long I hear conversations about health, pain, weight loss, exercise and fitness goals and diet. There’s something inescapably seductive about the idea of making a fresh and successful start in a brand new year.
At home, in my peaceful attic where the winter light steals in, poet David Whyte suggests making ourselves big for loss; if we have a healthy interior landscape, we are better able to absorb painful experiences.
Whyte’s inside-out wisdom, which has caught my attention before, provides a new frame I’ve been playing with as I live my life. It seems everywhere I turn I find this idea of loss and how we manage it. I’ve been reading a memoir entitled “This Life is in Your Hands” by Melissa Coleman. It’s about her childhood with her family on the coast of Maine during the 70s as part of the back-to-the-land movement. It’s a fascinating story encompassing all kinds of ideas, beliefs and discoveries about what it takes to leave much of modern life and wrest a living from the land. It’s also a story about a gradually unraveling family, doing their best to create a life they believe in but ultimately defeated by their ideals and the death of a child.
Coleman writes, “There were no gardeners of grief in our community.”
What a poignant, beautiful line that is. Gardeners of grief. There it is again, I thought when I read it, the idea of making intentional space, even a large space, for a feeling we typically avoid, deny or refuse to deal with.
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I wondered yesterday, sitting on the lifeguard stand watching the pool during a water aerobics class, how it would be if we focused New Year goals and intentions on our interior landscape rather than our external appearance. Would more people be more successful in making the changes they say they want? Would support and action in addressing our interior terrain naturally lead to the kinds of external changes so many of us seek?
Loss. What can we say about it? Some loss is so long and drawn out it’s almost chronic, and we become numb to it, though it shadows our lives. Other losses are shockingly abrupt and traumatic, and others still somewhere in between. Loss is painful in itself, but our feelings about who or what is lost can add significantly to our pain, especially if we don’t manage them properly.
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I’ve had two catastrophic losses in my life, though I feel foolish revealing them. The first was the loss of a diner. It was a little ramshackle shack with a spongy floor that dipped and swayed as you walked across it, room for about seven tables with mismatched and broken chairs, and a grease-saturated kitchen. It was less than a five-minute walk from my old house in a tiny Colorado mountain town, and for years I ate breakfast and/or lunch there at least once a week. I was working at the local public school while the diner was in business, so I knew all the high schoolers who bussed, waited, washed dishes and cooked. My own sons worked there in their turn. In the decade after my boys left and I was alone, the diner became like a second home to me. I was often the first customer of the morning, waiting patiently for the door to be unlocked with my travel cup of tea steaming in my hand and a book or notebook and pen under my arm. They made my breakfast without asking, as I always had the same thing, and Amy, the owner, would sit with me, sipping a cup of coffee, while we exchanged desultory early morning talk or were just quiet together.
I always felt welcomed at the diner. I loved it, and those who worked there, and they at least tolerated me with friendliness and kindness. I felt seen. One day Amy told me, with some reluctance, she was closing it down. The endless grind of owning and operating a restaurant had become too much, and it was getting harder and harder to avoid problems with licensing and inspection as the building deteriorated. She had dreaded telling me. We sat across from one another and wept.
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The second loss happened just a few weeks later, when the dearest companion of my life, a crippled long-haired orange cat, died quietly at home,
These two losses left me maimed and feeling unable to go on. I no longer recognized my life in that place, though I’d lived there for 20 years, raised children, worked, volunteered, danced and told stories. Strange, to realize the diner and Ranger as the only two pillars holding up my life. Why were these losses so much more terrible than my sons outgrowing the town, the school and me, and leaving? That was extraordinarily difficult and painful, and I thought I’d never recover or fill the hole they left in my days, but I still recognized myself and my life. I wasn’t completely undone. I knew we were all making the right choice to part ways and I would go on.
Remembering, it occurs to me my internal landscape had shriveled and withered without my noticing. Ranger and the diner had provided me with warmth, companionship, acceptance, love and belonging. In those two aspects of my life I was completely honest and authentic. When they were gone I was left with a grueling job that just barely supported me and was highly stressful, a home I loved and had worked hard to create but which was empty and desolate without Ranger, and the feeling that I was little more than a burden and a disappointment to nearly everyone in my life (including myself) and the town in general (with a couple of notable exceptions). I was nothing and had nothing anybody wanted or needed, and my life felt like a lie.
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When I think now about intentionally building an internal landscape, a bountiful landscape with lots of space, I realize the interior wasteland I was trying to live with before. A greasy spoon hole-in-the-wall diner and a cat were the only two things tying me firmly to life. I was not big enough to absorb their loss. I was always busy, but I wasn’t big. All my attention was on trying to please others and get loved.
Is getting a life, being in a life, creating a life about being busy and having things to do, or is it about building an interior landscape? Scientists are beginning to realize how important complexity is in living systems. Perhaps complexity is not about externals, such as how long our to-do lists are or our New Year resolutions, but about the interior ground of our lives. What if we were each able to build a complex interior terrain with not just room but welcome for all our feelings and needs, an interior system that could elegantly break down, absorb and transform loss, rage and fear? What if we nurtured several kinds of healthy relationships, contributed our experience and skills in more than one way and found a variety of creative outlets and activities to enjoy? What if we invited and allowed both loss and gain, joy and despair to dwell in our interior landscape? Would a more varied, complex and honest inner life allow us to find relief and respite from the inevitable losses and changes we experience?
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It seems to me the answer can only be yes.
Furthermore, if we choose to successfully build and maintain a complex interior landscape, will all the outward things we worry so much about either seem less important or more easily managed? If we’re more physically active and heal our relationship with food because we’re cleaning up and creating our interior landscape rather than because we want to lose weight, will the re-focus of our intention mean less resistance and failure?
All my life I’ve tried to hold back my feelings because I’m afraid of being overwhelmed by them, or of what others will say or think of me. The problem is I can’t pick and choose which feelings to allow and which to exclude. If I’m going to love wholeheartedly, I’m also wide open to the pain of loss. The idea of creating an internal landscape spacious enough to allow every feeling and experience unlimited depth and width is an interesting contrast to my impulse to recoil, withdraw and barricade myself into a small stone cave for the rest of my life.
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Now and then I need that internal cave, certainly. A bolt hole is essential to me. But surely there’s a whole interior world I can build outside the cave when I’m ready to step out of it again, a world with gardens and orchards of feelings and possibility, a world of connections and people to love and learn from, a complex inner terrain in which to get lost and find myself again. Best of all, my interior landscape is solely my own creation. In it, I can be utterly naked and free from concern about what others think of me. I can be fully authentic and honest without fear or shame. I can feel what I feel and have what I need.
Gardening for loss, for fear and for pain. Landscaping for joy, confidence and healing. Welcoming complexity and delving beneath the surface of life and of myself. Making myself big for the hard stuff.