Time

In the last few months I have noticed a pattern as I teach private swim lessons.

It first caught my attention over the summer as I worked with a six-year-old in her home pool. She and I have worked together for some years. We have a good relationship built on trust and affection. She’s strong and big for her age, and she’s a tiger, assertive, competitive, stubborn, determined. She’s focused on progression through Red Cross Learn-to-Swim levels. She’s less interested in the skill-building than the card proclaiming her a Level ___ swimmer, and she wants the card now.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

I started out her summer lessons the way I always do, with a review of the skills I knew she had already mastered. Then we began working on next-level skills. Except things fell apart. I began to feel frustrated. Her behavior, instead of sunny and eager (she was always waiting in the water for me until this), became oppositional. She stopped laughing with me. She stopped looking me in the eye. She stopped cooperating. She wouldn’t follow directions, she had to be coaxed into the water, and suddenly it wasn’t fun for either of us.

Her mom and I were puzzled. We agreed to take a couple of weeks off and regroup. My little student seemed relieved. During that time I thought about things and my student had some talks with her parents as we all tried to figure out what was wrong. Young children often lack the language to communicate their difficulties. Adults need to decode the behavior and provide the language.

I threw away my lesson plans for the next level and worked on games incorporating skills she already had. I made sure she knew our next lesson would be games. When I got to her house, she was able to tell me, with her mom’s support, that she didn’t want to learn some of the new skills I was presenting.

I suddenly recalled I was working with a six-year-old. Big, strong, determined, yes. But six years old! The level she and I had reached is typically a skill set nine to eleven-year-olds are working on.

Too much, too fast. Her competitiveness and determination had outstripped her physical and developmental ability, and in my delight in teaching and sharing my love for swimming, I simply forgot what was age-appropriate.

So, we spent the summer playing games and giggling. We practiced all the skills she already had, and we worked on some new ones, too, but she didn’t know that because they were games. If she didn’t like the game, we stopped immediately and did something else. She made up some games, too. We had a lot of fun. She waited in the water for me and pouted when our lessons ended. We were back in business.

I spoke privately with her mom and we agreed to slow down. This little girl needs time. Time to grow. Time to develop. Time to play and simply enjoy the water. Next summer she’ll be seven. If I work with her again, I’ll pay attention. She may be ready for next-level skills. She may not. But this time I’ll adjust more quickly, and she’ll have better language skills, too.

I have been observing this pattern during the autumn months as I teach. Sometimes kids want to learn more but we don’t have a lot more to teach them. Sometimes they want to learn more, or their parents want them to learn more, but they’re simply not ready physically or developmentally. An activity that used to be fun and easy starts to be stressful. Parents are frustrated. I’m not having fun. Children are uncooperative.

I’ve been thinking about time lately because in October I caught COVID for the first time and I’ve been sick ever since. I took good care of myself during COVID, in part because I was too sick to fight it. As I began to feel better, I slowly started exercising again. I didn’t want to slide backwards or develop a secondary infection. I was worried about weight loss and weakness, as well as my fatigue and lack of endurance. I gradually began walking to work again, and doing a mile at a time on the elliptical. I even got back in the pool and did an easy half a mile instead of ¾ of a mile with intermittent sprinting.

I was just beginning to feel better when I got sick again. Not with COVID and not as sick, but I filled up with congestion and started to cough.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

So, it’s been doctor visits. More nasal swab testing. Masks at work. Shortened shifts. Teaching lessons from the deck rather than in the water. No gym. No swimming. No walking to work.

The doctor keeps saying rest. My friends keep saying rest. I am resting, I swear it! I don’t have a lot of choice. If I do housework for an hour I’m worn out. I can rest, but sleep has been hard to come by because when I lie down I start to cough and nothing really stops it. The nights have been hard. And haunted.

I’ve been dreaming about my mother, who died in August. Bad dreams, where she’s in trouble and I’m trying to rescue her. Often we’re in water, which is ridiculous because Mom hated the water. Often we’re in the dark, but I can hear her end-stage breathing and death rattle and I grope through the dream, trying to find her. Sometimes I find her and get my arms around her, but then I wake up. In fact, Mom hated to be touched and I never held her the way I do in my dreams. Only in her deep dementia would she tolerate touch. The dreams hurt me with their promise of loving contact that never happened and now never will happen. I doze in my recliner and wake up weeping.

I want to move, to be at work, to go out and rake leaves, to scrub the kitchen floor. Something. Anything. I trail into the kitchen, make another cup of tea, have another half cup of chicken soup, read a few pages, write a bit. I get in the car to go to work instead of walking (everyone at works frowns at me when they find out I walked), and I’m resentful. I want my life back. I want my strong, fit body back. I want my energy back. I want it back NOW.

And, clearly, I need time. I don’t want it … but I need it. I suppose it doesn’t much matter if my experience is post-COVID, or post-whatever-this-last-virus was or grief or trauma or just getting old (!). Whatever it is, I am not in charge, and my stubbornness and determination are presently more than my physical and perhaps emotional reality can live up to.

Time is enigmatic, isn’t it? We say time heals all wounds. Does it, or does it just give us a chance to process our wounds, to clean them out, breathe on them, bind them up and learn to live with them? How can I help myself? What am I supposed to be doing with all this unwanted time? I think of my little swimmer. She doesn’t need to do anything. She’s perfect. She simply needs to give herself some time to grow. That’s it. Time does the work. Our job is to allow it to do the work.

This is unsatisfying. I’ve read that rest is productive, which makes me mad. It cannot be true. I can’t remember ever feeling loved, valued, or wanted because I rested well. Quite the reverse. (On the other hand, when has unceasing production ever worked to buy love, value, or a sense of being wanted? Never.) I have a feeling Time doesn’t need me to do anything, at least not anything I’m not already doing. Another cup of tea. All the calories I can take in. Rest. Tears. Dreams. Writing. Reading and dozing on the couch with the cats.

Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

Time.

I worked two days Thanksgiving week before having five days off. My physical upper respiratory symptoms are certainly better. Normal sleep patterns are returning. Yet a dragging fatigue and bewildered feeling remain. “It’s detox,” my massage therapist says. “It’s transformation,” the wisest, deepest part of me says. “It’s rebirth,” my Tarot cards say.

It takes time. Everyone agrees on that one.

I remember my little swim student, outraged tears in her eyes. “I’m still a Level ___, right? You won’t take away my Level ___?”

“No, sweetie. You haven’t lost anything. It’s all still yours. You’re just not quite ready to go on to the next level. You need some time …”

I hugged her and gave her a kiss, told her I’d see her again next summer if she wanted lessons. She believed me, reluctantly. She’s in a dance class this winter. That will distract her, I hope.

Now I need to put my arms around myself. My life is not passing me by. I’ll exercise again. I’ll put the weight back on. I’ll get strong, sleep well, stop coughing.

I just need some more time.

Questions:

  • Do you think rest is productive? In what way(s)?
  • Do you think of time as an ally or an adversary?
  • Do you think time actually heals, or does it just help us come to terms with what is?
  • What does rest mean to you?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

 

Mabon: Balancing Time

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.

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.

Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash

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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Peace

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,
seeking absolution.

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What I Have Not Loved

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.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

“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.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash

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.

Questions:

  • 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:

Balancing Grief and Love

Except I’m not. Balancing, I mean.

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.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

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 futility of 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.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

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.

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: