Grief, Like a Woman

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My friend died yesterday.

Now I find myself in the kitchen, ready to bake an apple pie to bring up to her family, which includes her husband, homebound with a debilitating disease.  My tiny and slight friend had cancer, and in spite of dealing with that and caring for her husband, she’d been in a good place.  A few weeks ago, she threw a party to thank all her women friends who gathered around her during the last year, driven her to appointments, brought food, and created a web of support during this challenging time. She called the party, So Far, So Good.

The apples I’ll use are the ones my husband and I gathered from the heritage apple trees at a local land preserve.  My friend served on the local land trust with my husband, and loved this particular preserve.  My husband called her the “welcome naysayer”  on the board.  That’s the kind of person she was: she saw things clearly, and wasn’t afraid to say so.

 I pull out the pie plate, gather the flour and butter.  Then I notice the stovetop is dirty, so I clean it.  The rings around the burners are spotted with black, so I remove them, and tackle them.  As I replace them, the stainless steel teapot, covered in a film of grease, catches my eye.  I never clean it.  Now I scour it until it shines.  I remember when we had to put down Abby, our first Springer Spaniel.  The vet was kind enough to come here.  It happened so quickly, they go so quickly, you know, once that needle goes in, they’re gone.  And then they took her away, zipped in a black bag.  My husband left for work, and I was suddenly alone.  I called a friend, crying, “I don’t know what to do.  She said, “Clean out a closet.”  And somehow it helped.

So I finish the stove, then tackle the sink and the dish drainer.  Grief, like all strong emotions, carries a physical energy. As my hands move from one task to the next, I think about all the women who cleaned through their grief.  I think about my mother, who was a cleaning fanatic, and how much grief and loss she may have cleaned through.  Not just the grief of death, but the grief of life itself, the grief of loss and disappointment, of needs unmet and wishes unfulfilled.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and for a moment experienced the utter blackness of how death might feel.  I wondered how it was for my friend, in those final moments. I hope she went quickly. 

She’d become so thin.  She was small and slim to begin with, but chemo had worked her down to bones.  When you hugged her, there was nothing to hug, no padding on her skeleton.  But she glowed.  During her last year she grabbed onto life tighter than ever, she appreciated everything. The sickness brought her a radiance that I hadn’t seen in the few years I’d known her.

The cleaning calms me.  I can bake the pie now. My husband will clean and peel the apples we picked.  I will fill that pie with all the love and compassion I can.  As I make it, I will think of my friend.  I will remember her tiny hands that could do anything: knit, sew, garden, edit.  She was both an editor and writer, had a meticulous mind able to deal with intricate detail with an envious ease. She designed her own knitting patterns, edited cookbooks, knit and sewed for the Muppets. When one of us had a problem with our knitting project, she would say, here, let me, and fix it in a flash.  She was a wizard that way, a wizard with her hands.

She was elegant, savvy, and private.  Until she became sick a year ago, she took care of her husband single-handedly.  She had a wide circle of interesting and intelligent friends.  Last summer, I helped her clean out the garage in the house she had just sold.  Later, we drove over to her friend’s house to see the gardens.  

In the car afterwards, I commented on the friend’s high energy and the lovely design of the gardens.  “She’s one of us,” my friend said, and although I didn’t know exactly what membership in that club meant, I was content to be considered worthy of inclusion.

Cupid, King of Cats

Cupid

1997 - 2008

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Most pet owners can tell you about their once-in-a-lifetime pet.  Ours was named Cupid.

He came to us as a five-month-old street cat.  Wild in spirit, with an intelligence that rivaled a human's, he was loaded with personality, good looks, and a sleek muscular body that allowed him to bat tennis balls over a net, leap from the kitchen floor to the top of the cupboard, and survive being hit by a car. 

I could go on, but I won't.  Leave it to say that for eleven years we savored his magnificence in physical form, and then one day he was gone.  He disappeared on a Friday evening late in October 2008, slipping out the back door, off on one of his nightly jaunts.  On Sunday afternoon a neighbor found him in his side yard. We're not sure what happened, but we suspect an attack from an owl or hawk.  We buried him on our property.

And have never forgotten him.  

Click here for my video (1:35) dedicated to Cupid.

And for a little black humor on the original Valentine cherub, check out this original song called Cupid (2:08) written by my husband, Doug Mahard, which appears on his  latest CD Fidel Castro's Favorite Band.

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The Women's March 2017

We left our homes at midnight Friday night to meet up with fellow travelers.  By 1:30 a.m. we  boarded one of 80 buses leaving Connecticut.  We rode through the night to arrive at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. before dawn. We walked two miles to the march. By the end of the day, we clocked nine miles on our feet.   The crowds were tremendous, the numbers so much greater than the organizers expected.  Two hundred thousand were anticipated; by the end of the day, the number was reported to be over a million in Washington alone, with several million around the world.  A sea of pink pussy hats filled the eye in every direction, along with creative and provocative handmade signs.

This is what democracy looks like:

And this:

Women's March 1/21/17 Washington, D.C. 

Photos from around the globe (NYT)

I have never been in the midst of so many people, nor felt so much like a sardine as our group of six squeezed through the crowd to reach a spot where we could see and hear the rally projected onto a jumbotron.  Yet, in spite of being mildy claustrophobic, I never felt afraid or threatened.  

And this is what free speech sounds like (click on names for links to YouTube):

Feminist activist  and icon Gloria Steinem called it an outpouring of democracy that she has never seen before.

California junior senatorKamala Harrisconnected women's issues to human issues.

Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore gave us our to-do list for activism.

Civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke eloquently about social justice and inclusive feminism.

Actor and activist Ashley Judd electrified the audience with a bodacious performance of  the poem "Nasty Women," written by a 17-year old feminist from her home state of Tennessee.

The rally continued for five hours, two hours longer than planned.  By hour four, we were all tired.  The chant to "March, March, March" had begun.  We were packed together so tightly that people around us were having panic attacks.  The crowd made room somehow as friends helped them move to a safe space, which in our case was the CNN van parked on the corner. I maintained my calm by practicing yoga breathing.  My friend told me later she used her Lamaze breathing techniques to keep her cool.

Finally a volunteer marshal appeared and directed us to turn around so we could march a different route.  We shuffled down the street and the march began.  Then, at last, we had a chance to sit.

After a long trudge back to the bus, and a wearying ride back north, I walked in the door twenty-seven hours after I left.  I felt inspired, energized and, exhausted.  The experience of being among that many who share your outrage and disbelief as well as your values is deep and profound, both comforting and energizing

All the speakers emphasized that this march was the beginning, that we all needed to go home and become active in our communities.  A few weeks ago I tweeted: "Am I REALLY going to have to call my senators every day for the next four years?" It appears the answer is yes.

I stopped crying three days after the election. I decided I would not sit by and do nothing. The change that had occurred was huge and scary, unlike anything I'd seen in six decades. The antidote for feeling powerless is action.  I signed up for the Women's March as soon as I heard about it.  

On the day after the inauguration, something bigger than the election happened.  People all over the country, all over the world, made a statement that cannot be ignored.  As Gloria Steinem said to the marchers, "You are putting your bodies where your beliefs are.  Sometimes it's not enough to hit the Send button."

Women's rights are human rights.  It's up to each one of us who believes this is true to take whatever steps we can to ensure the progress that has been secured is protected, and that further progress toward an equitable society is established.

Which means we have to get to work.  Progressive change has never happened without a fight.  Sometimes a very long fight.  

Because that is what democracy looks like.

>>> Want to know what you can do?  The Women's March website is one place to begin.  Find it here.

>>> And check out Indivisible for a practical guide, written by former congressional staffers, for resisting the Trump agenda.

I Had to Watch

The New York Times recently posted this three-minute video which contains  a compilation of recordings from Trump rallies. (Reader be warned: this is not easy to watch.)

Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump Crowds

I made myself watch it.  The Trump phenomenon is disturbing to me.   I have a hard time viewing videos of the candidate, let alone his unrestrained jeering crowds.   As a citizen I've never seen anything like the spectacle of Trump's triumphant and unlikely march to presidential nominee.

And as person who is committed to a decades-long avocation of spiritual growth, I needed to know if my personal beliefs could hold up to the vitriol I witness in the campaign, expressed both by the candidate and his supporters. My baseline belief is that, on the ultimate, mysterious level beyond the knowing of both scientists and theologians, we are all one.  If I am "one with everything," can I be one with Trump supporters, too?

As I watched the video again, three things struck me:

1/ The strong language used by the Trump supporters, such as:

F**k Islam - on a man whose t-shirt caused him to be ejected from a rally

F**k that "n word' - about Obama

As upsetting as these are, the worst are three chants about Hillary:

Unsettling: "Hillary is a whore:

Disturbing: "Hang the bitch"

Chilling: "Kill her"

Can I relate to any to these?  I have known anger, even rage.  I've said the words, "I could kill her," but it's been a long time since I've uttered that phrase.  The only time my father slapped me was when at age nine  I shouted at my mother "I hate you."  I learned an early lesson on the power of those words.

2/ The cathartic glee in the expression the young man repeating "F**k political correctness"  outside a rally.  He looked so happy to finally be able to say, shout actually, what he had been thinking, out in public, in the sunshine of acceptance.

As a writer and musician, I understand the delight in being able to express myself freely. It is exhilarating to speak my authentic truth, and to be heard.  I know how that feels. Can I find a commonality in this man's happiness?

3/ The older gentleman at the end (2:51), who says:

"He's the last candidate to preserve law and order and to preserve the culture I grew up in."

This was the poignant moment, the one that gave me a glimpse of what may be driving support for the unfathomable choice of Trump. Perhaps supporters are yearning for a past that cannot exist again, or didn't  exist at all.  Perhaps the inevitability of change is just too hard to come to terms with.  I've heard many spiritual teachers say: Change is hard, especially when resisted.

Can I gaze with neutrality upon these people, their reactions, their anger, their frustration, their willingness to follow, in what seems a blind fashion, someone who I consider not only mentally unstable (see these two links below for more on that) but downright dangerous to our country?

The Mind of Donald Trump (The Atlantic)

Could Donald Trump Pass a Sanity Test? (Vanity Fair)

What I'm trying to reconcile is this:  if we are all one, then what I am seeing in this video is also in me, and I am looking at my shadow.  I am capable of these feelings, too.  If all I do is push it away and refuse to look at it, or allow it to widen the gap between  Trump supporters and myself, then aren't I perpetuating the divisiveness that Trump is touting? Isn't that the same attitude that has led the human race to a history of war, rape, and violence against "the other"?

If I believe in a different future for this world, if I still carry hope for the evolution of our species to a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence, then I cannot avert my eyes.

Silence, Please

 St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Litchfield, Connecticut

St. Michael's Episcopal Church

Litchfield, Connecticut

Recently I attended an evening service - a  compline - at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Connecticut. A compline is the final church service of the day, in the Christian tradition of canonical hours.

It was dark and rainy that night, so I left home earlier than usual, planning to meet my friend.  When I arrived, I entered the church through narthex (foyer), framed by two sets of wooden doors with cast iron latches.  People coming in behind me spoke quietly, or not at all.

Inside the sanctuary, stone pillars marched up the side aisles, offset by a vaulted ceiling. Along the pews stood candles on tall candlesticks, leading my eye to the front of the church, where a large, round stained glass window drew me in.  The Gothic design of the window filled the space with its symmetrical intricacies.  I sat down on a cushioned bench along the rear wall and waited for my friend, happy to have a moment to absorb the beauty and hush of this place.

No one spoke.  The silence filled me with a spacious calm, pulling me backwards in time, to centuries past, to a recognition of the importance of silence.  To sit down and be still, taking in the peace of the church, was a blessing in and of itself.  The quiet, like a silent wave, seeped into my body.

My friend arrived and we found  a place to sit in the nave (body of the church).  She directed me to a compact book, The Common Book of Prayer (1547), which was King Edward VI of England's attempt to unify the Anglicans during the break from Rome known as the English Reformation.  We marked the compline section with an index finger, then watched as the choir, led by Music Director Marguerite Mullee, proceeded in from a door at the side of the altar.  The singers, a group of women completing a six-week chanting workshop led by Mullee, were dressed in black, accented by scarves of their choosing. They lined up in two rows facing each other, perpendicular to the congregation.  The priest followed, his upper body in a forward motion leading the rest of his body, as if in permanent supplication.

The service was short, less than a half hour, and those in attendance listened, and responded at the appropriate times, as indicated by the liturgy.  The choir sang unaccompanied; a capella means literally "in the chapel".  Their voices rose in the space, filling it with a sound that seemed ancient.

The compline is the "good night" service, an opportunity for the faithful to feel safe before they head off in the dark to their beds.  When it  was over, I remained seated while others immediately began to move, and to me even more disturbing, to chat.  It broke the spell woven by this brief entry into reverence and inwardness. I wanted to sink into the vibration of the silence, drawing it into my body and mind, allowing it to work its soothing renewal.  Although others moved out of the pews, I continued to sit with my friend.

The sanctuary was nearly empty when a man and a woman emerged from the side door carrying long-handled candle snuffers with large bell-shaped ends.  They walked up the center aisle together, coordinating their arrival at each candle. As they lifted their snuffers, their movements matched, so the flames were extinguished simultaneously. They glanced at each other before moving again.  As they passed us, I gave a slight nod to acknowledge their ritual.  I don't know if they noticed.

When they were done, I said a quick goodbye to my friend, then left, turning once on the way out to take in the glorious church.  As I walked across the damp lawn, the couple in front of me was chatting.  I kept my silence all the way home, not even turning on the radio.  I felt sad, and cheated of the opportunity to experience silence in a place that was designed for it.

Our society has never been comfortable with silence, and even less so now, when it is so easy and tempting to fill our minds and ears  with chatter, busyness, and distraction.  We avoid being with ourselves, avoid going deeper, avoid knowing ourselves and, if inclined, knowing God, or whatever you care to refer to the mysterious force that animates life.

I learned later that in many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after compline, during which the whole community observes silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day. What a relief that would be.

Then a friend shared this quote:

"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: "When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?"                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way

I love this description of silence as a "sweet territory", as a place, a space to inhabit, when I give myself the opportunity to stop skating across the surface of my life.

So my question to you, dear reader, is where and when do you find the "sweet territory of silence", and how does it serve you?

 

 

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Only Connect!

Only Connect

Only Connect!
                               - E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
     On a Friday evening I pull into the local pizza place. Parked next to me is a car with three passengers: a young mother in the front seat, her smart phone in her hand, her eyes on the screen. Two children are in the back. A four-year-old is in a car seat with a small digital pad in her hands, fingers pressing the screen. An older boy, maybe seven, sits next to her, absorbed in a digital tablet.
     It’s a summer evening, the air beginning to cool, the light still transparent at 7:30. Their windows are open, as are mine.  I turn off my car and wait a few moments, glancing over, seeing if I might catch their eye. Their eyes remain locked on their screens. Not only do they not notice me, they do not interact with each other.
     I walk into the pizza place. A few minutes later when I return, they are gone, and the opportunity for connection has vanished.
Hand-held Hostage
     Where is the shared experience in that family’s car? When the father came out with the pizza, did they put down their devices down and speak to him? Did they notice the aroma of the pizza, anticipate its taste, talk to each other? Or did they remain hostage to their hand-held devices? Who are they connecting with, if not with the people that are with them in the car? What will the memory of that moment be, or will there even be one? And if so, where will it be stored? On a digital server somewhere?  (See Huff Post Article on Why Hand Held Devices for Children Should Be Banned)
     I held out getting my own smart phone until last year. My husband and I had “dumb phones” (flip phones) until we could justify the expense. Once we converted, we were hooked. I am now guilty of checking my emails and Facebook an unnecessary amount of times during the day. It is so easy to do when I’m waiting at the bank drive-up, or riding in the car. I used to interact with the bank tellers more, and watch the passing scenery. Now I have to make a conscious effort not to give in to the tug of instant virtual gratification.
Map Queen
     Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to this house, people would stop and ask for directions when I was out walking. It’s easy to get confused on Connecticut country roads because they all look alike: winding, surrounded by woods on both sides, often unmarked by street signs. It wasn’t unusual to see a driver stopped, looking puzzled.
     I’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going? Do you need directions?” Then a conversation would occur, I’d direct them where they needed to go, and commiserate about how easy it is to get lost in these parts.
     Although now I still see people stopped, when I offer help they seem surprised, shake their heads, say “No, I’m just checking my GPS”. I want to say: Wouldn’t you rather talk to a person than a digital interface? Wouldn’t you like to know the shortcut and to avoid that road that is paved at the start but soon turns into a steep, rutted, dirt road that can tear out your car's suspension?
     I have always loved paper maps. In our house I’m known as the Map Queen because I have so many of them stuffed into my car door’s pocket. I throw the road atlas in the back seat whenever we take a trip. I like looking at a map. It brings me into the experience of our route, let’s me know where I am and where I’m going. Yes, I know, it can be seen as a metaphor for wanting to feel grounded and secure and perhaps in need of control, but navigation through this world is fun.
     On a paper map you can see a shortcut, or try a back road, or look, we’re just a few miles from this interesting looking place. With GPS, we follow the voice rather blindly, trusting a digital navigator to guide us. I’m a spiritually oriented person and I love trusting the invisible, but I'm interested in the form of the invisible that arises from within, not from the car dashboard.
Behind the Moon
     Only connect! When E.M. Forster wrote this, he wasn’t addressing the need for social connection, but it has become associated with that in this age of social media. (See New Republic article on context of this quote.)
     If I had to choose one quote to live by, it would be this one. It covers so much: only connect to the moment, to nature, to the deepest part of me, to whatever is presenting in my life, to whatever I’m experiencing, to that person across from me
     When we don’t reach out to a stranger, we diminish our sense of feeling safe in the world, of trusting it to be a generally friendly place.  We are isolated in our vehicles with our GPS, glued to our screens out in the world, frozen in front of the glowing squares in our homes.  How many times have you seen people at the same restaurant table completely ignoring each other while they tend to their lit rectangles?
     The experience of looking someone in the eye and seeing them, physically seeing them, of waiting to hear the answer while studying their face, of thinking of the life behind that face, this is what’s lost when we don’t connect with each other. No matter how much we’ve evolved and understand the physics of our existence and the oneness of everything, we still live and have our being in a physical world. The sensory experience of interacting with another of our species is a sweet, interesting, integral part of being human.
     Which is why we are naturally curious about each other. When I’m standing in the grocery line behind a parent with a baby, I hone right in on that little being. I want to make eye contact because that baby seems to know something that I want to experience again.
     When he was a boy, my husband asked his mother where he was before he was born.
     “Behind the moon,” she told him.
     I think babies may remember that place. When they hook into my gaze and stay with me, I want to go wherever they are going, and for those moments, I am a child again.
     That baby makes me smile, and I’m still smiling when it’s my turn to check out. I make eye contact with the cashier, exchange a few friendly words, and in doing so I acknowledge, however briefly, that we share the same place, the same planet, and that, on some level, we're all in this together. There is no digital equivalent for that kind of connection.

 

 

 

Being Sick, Like Buddha

 

Buddha Boy

Recently the stomach flu that’s been making the rounds hit me. Being ill for three days gave me an opportunity to practice dying, (yes, you read that right), and to cultivate a more Buddha-like temperament.

Surrender

On the first day, I am pinned to the bed, unable to lift my head. I have to surrender to what my body demands: total rest. Since I’m a healthy, productive woman living in the go-go-go, connect-connect-connect twenty-first century, it’s a complete change to be barely able to make the necessary phone calls and emails to cancel my day’s work schedule. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to feeling well again is to allow my body to do its natural - and miraculous - healing.

I usually take my body for granted, although I do occasionally have moments of appreciation. The pulse of its natural, unerring urge to life was demonstrated when my mother was dying of lymphoma. During her last few days, I watched her twitch and toss, under the influence of morphine, as her body slowly gave up its grip on life. The only thing she was able to say when conscious was “I know, I know”, which we took to mean she knew she was dying and she was alright with it. But her mind accepted before her body was willing. The need for surrender does not come easily to our physical vehicles, which cling to life with ferocity.

I think about my attachment to not just my physical existence, but all the things in my world which form my identity and which I rely on to bring me comfort and beauty. I consider what it’s like to say goodbye to my home, to the people I love. I wonder about the moment of death, will I be aware and step willingly into the mystery of it? These are thoughts I usually don’t ponder, and I touch the freedom - and fear - of letting go. Maybe death is like taking off a tight shoe, the soul sighing with relief.

Being Mindful

Gate Garden Untethered from my daily routine, I become more present. I take in the view out the window,  which I’ve seen a thousand times, with new eyes, eyes that don’t breeze over details. I notice the shape of the trees, the branch that was torn off in the last storm, the way the tops of the pines are loaded with tiny pine cones. And I tap into a well of gratitude for the world I inhabit. On the second day, I wake up with a little more strength. I stare at the blue walls of our bedroom. The blue paint - Windmill, it’s called, although I wonder if the windmills in the Netherlands are painted blue - appear alive to me, so alive I consume it through my eyes. It travels into my body like ephemeral nourishment. I experience the energy of color in a new way and I promise myself I won’t forget.

Later that day I feel able to step outside on the porch and sit in the sun, or rather lie in the sun on the long porch step, while I lazily toss a tennis ball for the grateful dog. I cover my eyes with my arm and allow the sun to warm me. It feels like a gift. The dog is happy, and I’m content with this simple moment. I’m not thinking about what I need to do next.

Charlie

When I return to bed, which has become a cozy nest, with pillows surrounding me and the afghan my mother knit me while I was in college covering me, I am thankful. I finger my mother’s handiwork and wonder how many times she ripped out rows to achieve the perfect result which, four decades later, still warms me. Some of the fringe was braided by one of my college roommates, and here is her hand, too, which I now have time to remember. I recall something endearing about her, how she didn’t know how to finish her laugh. One evening we taught her how, practicing the tapering end of a good laugh. I wonder what her laugh sounds like now.

Gratitude

On the third day I venture into the yard. In the garden, last night’s rain is puddled in the umbrella-like leaves of the Lady’s Mantle, the rain drops nestled symmetrically in the leaves’ folds. I see the world anew, stop to examine the buds on the dwarf cherry tree, listen to the hum of the bumblebees, notice their number - hundreds - turning that tree into a hovering hub of activity. I experience the world with the sense of wonder and innocence of a three-year old and although I know it won’t last, that within a day or two the spell will wear off, I appreciate it and want to retain it. Lady's Mantle Decades ago my first meditation teacher counseled his students to let death be our counselor. He introduced us to the the idea that in welcoming as companions the impermanence of life and the unpredictable nature of death, we could become more awake, aware, and alive. Being temporarily sick can be an opportunity to step closer to death, and to life.