bouncing kisses

Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.

Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:

“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.

“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”

Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.

“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.

“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.

Daddy said he would come back. He said.

* * *

In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wavewhich you can buy for only $8.

It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.

three things: 12/27/16

1) Headaches, of which I am the chief taxonomist, the God of Knowing, the Linneaus, the Webster. My dad was a headache-haver, I am the inheritor of that misery, and my daughter Katie carries it on another generation. I have a headache nearly every single day, and know the specifics and instigator of so many. There’s the one that exists in the top of my left eyeball (and the very different one that dominates my right eyeball). The one that sits on the top center of my head. The one that presses on my right temple. The one that wraps like a belt. The one that comes from a low pressure system. The one that arises from smells in the environment. The one that comes from specific bad sleep. The different one that comes from insufficient sleep. The one that comes from perfume or cologne worn by others. The one that I get when it’s too cold. Etc. Etc. Etc. The one that’s treated with hot, wet cloths. The one that’s treated with Sumatriptan. The one that’s helped by beer and a Sudafed (only if both at once). The one that’s helped by massage. The one that’s helped by sleep. The one that is helped by nothing. And all combinations of all.

People want to help, and I inevitably hear that I should go to a doctor. But the issue is that I am a headache-haver, and that isn’t treatable. I know how to identify and treat the different ones, so what would a doctor say? You have sinus headaches, tension headaches, sleep-related headaches, you’re sensitive to volatile organic compounds, all of which I already know. It’s a terrible thing, being a headache-haver, because my day can be derailed so easily and often there is nothing to do but wait for the next day in the hope that it’ll be better. This part of the post brought to you by today’s low-heavy-shaggy-gray-sky-headache. I was in my mid-20s when I learned that not everyone has a headache every single day, and it blew me away. Lucky you, if you don’t!

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 6 of those are from the past 13 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

2) My son is breaking my heart anew. I got a message from his ex-boyfriend about a box of Will’s stuff — did I want it, or should he throw it away? It’s filled with pictures from Will’s childhood, mementos, gifts I gave him, an album his sister assembled with pictures and letters from us all when she was trying to lead him back to our family, all just abandoned by him. I’m honestly not sure I can bear to collect them, but I know I can’t bear for them just to be tossed in the dump on Staten Island and so I will collect them. They will smell like Will. He told me that Will lost his job in the spring and he doesn’t know if/where he’s working, and that he doesn’t have the same phone number. He knows he is (at the moment) staying with a friend in Sunnyside, Queens, but nothing more specific than that. The thread is getting so weak that allows me to tug him, frayed down to a single twist. Will knows he is hurting me, and that doesn’t make my pain any less, it doesn’t allow me to just reside in anger at him. I still fill the weight of him in my arms, smell the smell of his baby head, smell the smell of his teenage years, hear the sound of his boy voice and his deep man voice. I still remember his humor, his pleasure in beating me at Scrabble, the way he called me Ma just to crack me up. The way he said I’d be Granma Pete instead of just Pete, to make me laugh. It’s holding the full complexity of it all that breaks my heart. If I could simply be furious with him, or let him go, or just feel all the love, it would be so much easier.

3) I’ve been trying to sit very still and quiet with this terrible feeling in order to understand it. I set aside the headache as its own thing, and focus instead on the heartache. Why is it so painful? What, exactly, is the feeling of it? I realized that I feel chaotic and not whole, that this feeling is one of fragmentation, and an inability to cohere. It might cohere if I had a simple story I could tell, if I had more answers (whatever they might be) than questions, if I had a simple set of feelings. Just grief, for example. My mind feels like threads exploded outwards, my body doesn’t feel whole and comfortable, and my feelings are all over the place, changing with my breath. I’m doing my best just to let this all be, to be present with it and not try to force it into one category, one thing, and to notice that I can do that. Super hard, y’all. Super, super, super hard. I keep suddenly standing up and preparing to walk somewhere, but I just take a few steps, turn around, hold my head, and sit down again. This is just part of life, it’s just part of my life, it just is, and it will not always be like this.

apathy is privilege

It’s like a death has happened. Enough people in our country voted in just the right places (note: not the majority of us, though) to elect a demagogue. So the majority of us are grieving, and mourning, and aching, and lost, at the moment. We’ll get ourselves together, we’ll rally, we’ll organize, we’ll work to protect the vulnerable among us . . . unlike the stated plan of the Republicans had they lost, which was to call the election rigged, to fail to concede, to imprison the opponent, to bring out guns and violence. No, instead we will organize and work, once we get through the pain.

But you know, none of whatever Trump does will affect me personally and immediately. I’m white, not a person of color. I was born in this country, and my family has been here for generations. I’m straight. I’m not in the stage of my life where reproduction is a concern. I have a bit of work. I don’t have any family in the military, serving in dangerous places. I’m not disabled. I will be nowhere near our new president so I guess my pussy is safe from him, at least. I don’t have a pre-existing condition that will disallow me from getting health insurance. Of course he will affect me quite personally, down the road, when he ignores climate change, and when he and his Republican Congress gut Social Security, which I’ve been paying into my entire working life and have depended on as a substantial part of my retirement because I am so far from wealthy it’s not funny.

But the part that has me grieving the most is the threat he poses to others, people who just barely have the same rights I have already, and whose rights will probably be snatched away. Marriage equality, for instance. Reproduction rights, already unavailable to most poor women in my own [current] home state of Texas even though they are currently granted by a Supreme Court decision — which I expect they will try to overturn. Gun reform? Forget it, now. Ending Citizens United? No way. And so all the dark money, all the Koch Brothers etc machinations to make the rich even richer and screw everyone else, that will continue on. Giving refuge to immigrants, that ain’t gonna be happening, no way. Climate change? Oh, didn’t you hear that it’s just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and so no worries, man. Fair treatment for women? Tossed back a decade or two, if not more, because you can bet they’ll post Supreme Court Justices, even though they failed to do their job when Obama was obligated to replace Scalia. The sheer irony I choke on is that everything the far right complains about most, corruption and money in politics that keeps the little guy down, they just voted to ensure.

But you know, I don’t have any money anyway, so whatever. I pay 100% more taxes than our president-elect has paid, and there’s not one thing I can do about it. Not one.

Can I, though, sit in my privilege and just shrug, since I won’t be personally and immediately affected? Because my daily life won’t be impacted. I don’t have to worry that a knock will come on my door, or when I’m moving around in the world. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be brutalized on the street because I’m gay, or brown, or of another religion. I don’t have to worry that some ignorant white thug with a trucker’s cap and an assault rifle, newly emboldened by his president-elect who has championed that violence, will kill me. I don’t have to worry that during a routine traffic stop a cop will kill me and get away with it.

Instead, I have to get up. I have to fight. I have to pick which fights I can engage in, because although I want to engage in all of them, I don’t have the available time that would require, and I’m not in any one place long enough to have a sustained commitment to a local group, in a meaningful way. But I have to fight, however I can. I have to be prepared for trouble, because I also have to speak out when I see something terrible happening, whether it’s a cop harassing a black person, a thug harassing a gay person or couple, or a Muslim, or anyone harassing another woman. I have to be honed and ready, and not be caught off guard. It’s go-time, y’all. It’s get off the Facebook meme and go time. It’s speak-up time. It’s speak-out time. It’s self-defense time. Here is a list of outlets you can study to find when and where you can fight back, if you’re interested.

My friends helped me through the worst of the immediate aftermath, and now I’ve found the little crack where the light is getting in. Let’s hold hands and do this. Let’s remember

John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work. I admire her for this more than I can ever say.
Martin Luther King, who said "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Martin Luther King, who said “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Still waiting.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.

These people will be my touchstones, my sources of energy and persistence when mine flags, because mine flags too quickly. Help me, let’s help each other, because I meant it when I said with her that we’re stronger together. Let’s make her rallying cry reality — for her, for ourselves, and for everyone else. I’m still with her.

what you let go

doesn't seem so hard when you put it like that...
doesn’t seem so hard when you put it like that…

The other night I was taking a yin yoga class with Felicia Tomasko over at YogaGlo. I love so many things about her classes, and I especially love her yin classes. This one in particular was focused on detox, so lots of twists and long, long holds (languid, as she likes to describe them).

During one twist she said, “What you let go of is as important as what you take in.” She was specifically talking about breath, about exhaling, but it struck me as being very important in a much bigger way, and a way that is certainly relevant for me. You too, maybe.

As a person who has historically had an impossible time with conflict, especially with saying no, I don’t want that, I have found myself with an accumulation of relationships over the years — like we all do. During my childhood, when we moved every few weeks, I remember explicitly thinking that it didn’t matter about that person because we’d just be moving soon. And so I both learned that as a strategy, and simultaneously never had to learn how to stick with people and work things out. No need! Moving on, moving on, moving on.

Since the beginning of 2013, I’ve ended two friendships, the only two times in my life I’ve done that. Both relationships were toxic and quite bad for me, and in both cases I ended them completely, without equivocating. The two women involved made it very easy for me, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve never been able to end any relationship directly and so it was good that the need and reason were both so loud and clear.

And now, in the wake of the wide-ranging changes that have been happening with me over the past year, I find that I am listening to what people say in a different way. I am hearing them, hearing their actual words. I even kind of hear them in real-time, instead of a split second later which is how I used to hear them if I heard them at all. With a time lag, I’d realize what had just been said and my moment felt lost, the moment to say What? What did you just say to me?!

It’s not like this change is an easy one, necessarily, because it means I’m more likely to face a moment when I need to challenge what someone says, in that moment, and I’m not very skilled at that. (Plus, it’s scary. With only one very recent exception, most people lash out if you say something they don’t want to hear, turn the tables and blame the other. I need to remember my recent exception to this and let it hold weight.) And if I listen carefully to what people say to me, and there are enough instances of a certain kind, it may be that I need to let relationships go. There is only one current relationship I have that feels wobbly in this specific way, and I’m certainly not itching to throw gas on anything, or make a problem where none really exists, but I am hearing what she says.

It’s worth thinking about. What you let go of is just as important as what you take in. I don’t have trouble letting go of stuff; my life taught me all about that. I let go of place pretty easily, for better and for worse equally. The events of my life have taught me pretty loudly that nothing lasts forever, that it’s all, every last bit, going to change, transform, perhaps disappear in the way I have it. I haven’t yet faced a loss within myself that is grievous—all my limbs work painlessly, my senses all work, the most important organs are just pumping along without a problem, my mind works well enough—so dealing with the ordinary losses of aging have been easy to accept. Looking ahead to the losses I’m likely to face as a consequence of aging is a waste of now, and luckily now has become my favorite place to be.

Felicia’s comment about the importance of what you let go is surely about the things we choose to let go, like relationships that aren’t good, work that is crushing, habits that hurt. Since life feeds up a banquet of letting go of things we don’t want to let go of, perhaps the critical corollary is How you let of things is just as important as everything else.

You grieve. You acknowledge. You honor. Perhaps you find some kind of ritual. You understand the place of the loss in the scheme of things, yourself, your life, the world. You cherish and then you open your hands. You discover who you are without it, you discover who you are now, and you allow time for that to settle. In the perfect world, the one I hear about and only make the tiniest visits to, that’s how you let go of things. But it’s always worth the effort, I do believe, and the effort may take a very long time, a number of passes, some forwarding-and-backwarding. You understand that maybe it’s a process, not a one-time-only deal, a one-stop-shop.

Another lesson learned on the mat. xoxo

habits

water + time = changed rock
water + time = changed rock

When water runs in a rivulet over rock for a very long time, it erodes grooves into the hard stone. Dripping water can eventually produce a bowl-shaped hollow in a stone. I think about that when I encounter a very long and old habit, one that started decades ago.

When my parents divorced in 1970, I was 11. It was a bitter and nasty divorce, and my mother really wanted us to hate my father so she said horrible things about him non-stop, she kept us away from him, and she lashed at us if we ever expressed anything positive for him, to be sure we’d keep those thoughts to ourselves, if we had them. And then, of course, we started moving every couple of months and so it was easier to keep us away from him. He saw the three of us kids only once after the divorce.

But I was “his” and so my longing for him was very deep. Once Mother intercepted and opened a letter I had written him, and because I’d told him I loved him, she put me out on the curb, called him to come get me, and I sat on the hot curb for the six hours it took him to get there. That was a very short-lived period I spent with him, just a couple of months when I was 13, because he was in such terrible shape and I couldn’t stay there safely.

Since he was a shimmering-with-rage drunk with a fondness for guns, we also had to keep our eyes peeled for him because a couple of times he put us in danger. So I got in the habit of watching for him, partly out of my longing and partly out of real fear. I looked at the driver of every oncoming car. I looked at the face of every man on the sidewalk, in the mall, at the grocery store. Even after he killed himself, I kept looking. It had just become such a habit — that water had dripped on the rock for so very many years — I couldn’t stop. I still do it, actually, but in a pale version. I’m not leaning forward when I look, my heart doesn’t pound, it’s just what my eyes do. They constantly look for him.

And then my son Will disappeared into NYC when he was 18. I didn’t know where he was and I frantically looked at every single young man who might be him, for years. When I’d stand on the subway platform I scanned all the faces on my side and on the other side. I looked at the people in the subway cars as they passed. Every person sitting in restaurants, coffee shops. Every person passing on the sidewalk, looking looking looking. Is that him? Is that him over there? Wait…is that him? Is that my son? It felt so familiar to be doing that, although the feeling was now a shattered heart.

here's a picture of my son that someone tagged on Facebook a year ago. The ache I feel from his absence can be gutting.

We had a brief reunion when Will came back into our family for a year or so after Katie tracked him down and forced him to talk to her. He talked to us all and I got to see him on a semi-regular basis in NY.  [That’s Will there, in the photo to the right. He’s standing next to his partner Jim. Someone tagged him on Facebook a year ago, and I haven’t seen a picture of him since.]

Once, in that brief window of getting to see and speak to him, I was walking to the subway station on the corner and was looking for him, just because it had become my habit to look for him. My eyes passed right over him, standing in the doorway of a burger shop as I passed! He called out, “Hey Ma,” and I was so shocked.

I’d gotten into the habit of looking for him, but never in the habit of finding him.

There was always the fear that he’d disappear again, which he did two years ago in August. My daughters haven’t seen him since Gracie’s funeral. I saw him a couple of times after that and then that was all, he disappeared from our family again. And so he’s gone again, two years now, and he shut down his Facebook account so I don’t even have a hope of a random and rare photograph of him coming through my feed, tagged by someone unknown to me. I look for him everywhere, even in Austin where he hasn’t lived since 2003. I look for him incessantly when I’m in New York, and I suppose I will look for him the rest of my life.

Water can eventually destroy a rock, make it disappear, microscopic specks at a time. Years and years of running, neverending wearing against the rock affect the shape and even existence of it. I too am an eroded stone, worn down by my lifetime of looking for these two men. When I legally changed my name to Stone fifteen years ago (long before Will left), one reason I picked the name was that it was solid, anchored, unmoving. Elemental, strong. I had always wanted to be those things.

And so I stand, unmoving. I wait for him. I am worn down by looking for him and never finding him, and the habit is so deeply embedded in my cells now that I don’t think I could stop, even if I wanted to. It’s been a very hard couple of weeks since he shut down his Facebook account and closed off the last (and extremely trivial) access we had to him. I’m crying a lot, and even when I’m just sitting still there will be tears sliding out of the corners of my eyes without my recognizing that they’re coming.

Time Does Not Bring Relief (Edna St Vincent Millay)

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

tenderness

heartYesterday afternoon I drifted into one of my favorite emotional places. I think it’s been building for a while, and then my miserable experience with the writers’ conference walked me the rest of the way there. I feel tender toward the world, cracked open, wistful. (Wistful is my favorite feeling, wrote about it here.) Yesterday was actually less about wistful and more about tender, but those live in the same neighborhood.

Right now, as I move around the world unencumbered in my own little life, I know a number of people who are dealing with the imminent death of a close loved one, or are dealing with a frightening health crisis of a dear loved one, or are grieving a loss. I gather this will happen with greater frequency, the older I get, as loss happens more regularly. And of course our own hearts, in my family, are still crisscrossed with fresh scars from losing Gracie; the scars are now strong enough to resist tugging, but tugging hurts a lot. For me, big happiness and this kind of tender feeling are wrapped up together so inextricably I’ll always find one when the other is present.

On the first day of the conference, Peggy and I were in the car on the way to New Haven and she asked casually if I liked The Wailing Jennys, because they were on her iPod and we could listen as we drove. I love The Wailing Jennys! The mention of them opened my heart because Dixie introduced them to me by surprise-sending me their “Bright Morning Stars” CD. Beautiful three-part harmonies, gorgeous melodies, wistful songs. One song on that CD in particular carries a huge weight in my heart, the song called Away But Never Gone. I couldn’t remember the name of it, so I told Peggy that I especially loved one song, I’d know it when I heard it.

She started the music and tears filled my eyes — that beautiful music was imprinted with the moment, the happy happy moment of being with Peggy, on our way to the writers’ conference, that moment of such importance to me. All the elements were right there: Peggy, the gorgeous day, being in that moment, everything. I knew that forever more, when I heard anything from that CD I could be swept right back to the moment with Peggy, and Dixie would be there with me too.

Several songs into the playlist, the song I loved came on and I said, “That’s it! That’s the song I love so much.” It’s a very wistful song, as you can imagine from the title (Away But Never Gone, lyrics here). For me, it carries the heaviness of that period when I told Marc we should let each other go, because he was so incredibly lonely. I sent him that song and told him that it’s how I felt, that he would never be gone from my heart. I can’t listen without feeling that moment and thick, fat tears fill my eyes.

But Peggy has her own exquisite moment with the song too, her story not mine to share, but she shared it with me as we drove and the morning sun was like a kaleidoscope through our tears. I’ll remember that shared moment with her always.

One of my friends is nearing the end of a difficult treatment. One of my friends is not doing very well and life is feeling small and limited, and possibly changed in a long-term way. I think about those two people, I close my eyes and see the lives they’ve been living, lives spent with loved ones, lives spent helping others, doing things they love, ordinary lives, really, of the happy variety. Like mine. And I feel so tender toward the whole thing, toward what it is to live a life, to sweep up the happiness into our arms, to have our hands forced open as we lose things, hopes, experiences, plans, people. There is something so poignant to me about being here in a human life. We help each other live, we help each other die. We help each other with tiny loads and big ones. We help each other with joy, because it’s so much better shared, and we help each other with disappointment — also better shared, than managing all alone. My heart is full of fear and loss and anxiety and excitement and the future and the unknown and this beautiful moment.

loss and suffering

heartTalking about a mother’s heart is a schizophrenic experience for me. There I’ll be, talking about how full mine is, or how broken – because I am a mother to these people – and then I’ll remember so pointedly that it’s not true “because” I am a mother, because my own mother and plenty like her do not have these feelings.

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.
I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

My son is estranged from our family. He disappeared from us entirely in 2005, into New York City. I was living there too, and not knowing where or how we was doing made me feel, every single day, like I would die from it. From the fear, from the heartache, from the worry. I emailed him every single day, without fail, never knowing if he got them. For a brief period I discovered where he worked and would stand on the opposite corner, where he wouldn’t see me, and just watch. “Ah, he looks OK. Today he looks OK.” He held all the cards and all the power, and my fear was that if he saw me he would quit that job and then I wouldn’t even know that much about him. And so I’d watch from a distance because knowing that he was alive mattered more than the rest.

Thanks to my oldest daughter’s efforts, he rejoined our family, tentatively, for about a year, and we said some of the things to each other that we needed and wanted to say, and then he disappeared again and simply will not respond to any of us. The last time I saw him was August of last year (he lives a few blocks from me in NYC) and he doesn’t answer our calls, never responds to our texts or emails, he just stays away. When will I see him again? Will I? Will I hear from him ever again?

It’s a very hard thing to talk about for so many reasons. Too many parents respond with judgment and cold assumptions, they make thoughtless remarks. I do not need anyone to remind me—ever—that I have made mistakes in every avenue of my life, including parenting. I imagine some parents respond in judgment because it lets them feel safe: she must have done something so bad to deserve this and I know I haven’t, so it won’t happen to me. I hope it doesn’t, it’s excruciating. But I don’t and never will regret the thing I did that precipitated his leaving nine years ago, even if I never see him again. I felt that way then and I feel that way now. He was in a bad place and I tried to save his life, knowing very well that he might never forgive me. But he would be alive in the world and I decided I would live with that.

What is wrong with me – all the other mothers talk about their kids, complain about this little thing or that little thing, oh those kids – and I have this one who chooses to be gone. My heart is broken every single day, missing a chamber, dead in spots from lack of blood there. I feel shame and sorrow and impossible loss, and exquisite pain that every single day he makes the decision not to be in our family. I have a friend who understands personally what this feels like, and just having that little spot of true understanding has been such an experience of grace. And I got a note from one of my daughters with an expression of compassion that was so profound I’m bleaching out the pixels in her email from reading it over and over and over. There is such a balm from compassion and empathy from your adult children, I’m telling you. You wait a long, long time, hoping that someday they understand things, and sometimes they do.

Once in a blue moon I remember that my own mother and I have no connection – I haven’t seen or spoken to her since spring of 1987, and I won’t see or speak to her ever, for any reason. I won’t go to her funeral, if I even get the news that she dies. Is my son’s absence about the universe coming around to smack me down? How can my estrangement from my mother and my son’s estrangement from me have anything at all to do with each other, the situations could not be more different, and yet I am the common point to both. Pain ripples out a very long time from old boulders thrown into deep lakes, and maybe Will’s estrangement is a long slow ripple.

I have absolutely no idea what the pain of a child’s death is like. I watched my grandmother deal with my father’s death, and I watched my daughter deal with her daughter’s death. That’s a place I hope I never learn personally, I cannot even imagine. I’ve heard widowed and divorced women talk about which is worse – “At least yours died and didn’t leave you!” “At least yours could always come back!” – and there’s just more than enough sad truth in both losses. I am so glad my son is alive, and there is a cutting horrible pain in his choosing this.

Life is a mess and so are we as we try to live it. We fuck up out of ignorance, out of shortsightedness, out of our own brokenness, out of being human, and things are not always neat — maybe they never are neat. I try to extend that same understanding to my son, that he is perhaps fucking up out of his ignorance, his shortsightedness, his own brokenness, his humanity, and his life is not neat. Unlike my mother with me, my love for my son endures and will be echoing inside me to my last breath, whatever happens with him in the interim. And I am every day filled to the brim with love and appreciation for my beautiful daughters, I cannot neglect to say that.

the last of those anniversaries

There was a 17-day period last year that was the worst of my whole life, and I cannot imagine such a thing will ever happen to me again. Nearly my whole life crumbled under my feet, and very little was the same at the end of it; mercifully — an enormous mercy — I still had my precious children and I was still alive, but everything else was gone. My granddaughter. My daughter’s desperate longing to be a mother. My marriage. Where and how I lived. My dreams. Poof.

this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.
this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.

One year ago yesterday I boarded an airplane with three giant suitcases filled with clothes. I didn’t have a key to anything or any place. I flew away from New York, believing I’d never live there again. I left friends, hoping to stay in touch. I left a small number of books, planning to return to pack and ship them. And that’s it. Me plus clothing in bags. Been there before, never thought I’d be there again. (But I survived.)

One enormous loss was the belief that finally I’d never have to move again. I’d lived at the same address for six years, longer than I had ever lived at one address my whole life. Three times as long as I’d ever lived at one address, actually. My 80th move took me there, and I believed — finally, I believed — that I wouldn’t ever move again until I was dead. I fought my way to that belief, resisting allowing myself to believe it out of fear, fearing that becoming comfortable about that would make the pain unendurable if I lost it. But finally I did come to believe it. And the pain was in fact almost unendurable when I lost it. (But I survived.)

One year ago yesterday he drove me to the airport and spoke sharply to me on the way, making me cry even harder. He helped me get my three enormous bags into the airport and then turned and walked away, and I stood there in shock. (But I survived.) Here’s what I said about it last year:

Yesterday was machine gun fire, a giant rollercoaster, take your pick of metaphor. After getting an hour’s sleep, we left for the airport and wrestled my three giant suitcases to the airline check-in desk. Southwest Airlines agents are perky and seem to assume that everyone they encounter is a  happy person, going to a happy place (!) oh-so-happy! She kept apologizing for having to charge me for a third bag, and was insistently pressing on me about the trip while in my head I was screaming, I’m moving, these are all my clothes. This is my husband — we are leaving each other, I am moving, please stop. I sat alone at the gate for a very long time, stunned and blank.

Remembering all this brings the terrible pain back into my chest, the blankness back into my mind, the tears back into my eyes. Waiting for me in Austin was my beautiful and devastated daughter Katie, reeling and blank from her daughter’s funeral just a couple of weeks earlier. My solid and loving son-in-law Trey, reeling too. And they opened their arms, their home to me. They absorbed me with love, put their aching arms around me. There was so much to do — I didn’t have a fork, even. I landed at the airport around 1pm on a Saturday, and by 3pm that same day I’d rented my place and bought a couch. The next Monday Katie and I drove to San Antonio to pick up the car I’d bought.

Somehow, Katie and I bought all the things I’d need to make myself a home. Somehow she found it in herself to press me not to shortchange myself and just get junk, knowing it would eventually make me feel terrible to be surrounded by plastic, temporary things when I felt so temporary myself. Somehow she and Trey helped me make the transition two weeks after I arrived, leaving me to grieve alone in my new home, and leaving them to return to their own lives alone together to continue their grief. (And we all survived.)

A year ago yesterday I stood on scorched earth, a place I’d stood many times, a place I feared ever standing again, a place I believed I could never endure standing again. A year ago yesterday I and my life were saturated by loss and devastation. (But I survived.)

A year ago yesterday, one of those extraordinary serendipitous moments happened to me, as they frequently do. On the flight to Austin, I turned a page in the book I was reading and came upon this poem, the most perfect thing I ever could have read:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem gave me strength and courage, as did knowing that Katie and Trey were waiting for me, and boy the poem was the truest thing ever. I was not done with my changes; I will not be, until I draw my last breath. I had so much pain waiting for me, when I thought I’d already endured more than I could. I had so much heartbreak waiting, when I thought my heart was already shattered completely. I had so much growth ahead of me, when I thought the root was dead, finally, killed by too much suffering at the end of a life of too much suffering.

What I didn’t know, a year ago yesterday, was everything. I didn’t know the pain still to come (so glad for that); I didn’t know the harshness January and February would bring me (so glad for that); I didn’t know I’d find such beautiful things in myself, I didn’t know how strong I am even though I thought I did; I didn’t know my life would become better than it has ever been, filled with so many people who would just open their arms to me and take me in. I didn’t know I’d build a home for myself. I didn’t know I’d be surrounded by people. I didn’t know I’d thrive. And I certainly didn’t know I’d find my way back in New York City regularly, I certainly didn’t know I’d find some way to stay connected to my husband, I certainly didn’t know (and in fact would’ve bet everything against it) that he would change so much, so deeply, and in the ways I most needed. I assume I’ve made similar changes. I didn’t know I would in fact get to travel — didn’t know I’d go to Java and Bali, didn’t know Sri Lanka would be in my future, a year ago. I didn’t know that from my place of such tremendous want, I’d end up with such enormous surplus.

Just goes to show you. It ain’t over til it’s over, no matter how it looks in the dark. Katie, Trey, thank you for the ways you gave ME a home and a safety net, and all your love. Marnie, Tom, thank you for your optimism and support, assuring me I would be better than I dreamed. All that isn’t limited to a year ago yesterday, of course — it came before and it continues after that anniversary, but when I was at my greatest need, you held me. For such an unlucky person I am the luckiest person in the whole world.

Grace Louise

A year ago today, Katie delivered little Gracie, her full-term stillborn daughter. It was just a knot in the umbilical cord, and I haven’t yet been able to figure out if that makes it even worse. Some days it feels like it does. There was nothing wrong with Katie or Grace, she would’ve been perfect, fine, alive.

It’s been a hard year. My own grief is probably 80% for my dear, dear daughter and her terrible loss and suffering, but there is a very potent ache and suffering for the loss of our little Gracie. Her quilt and Christmas stocking remain unfinished, and I think that’s such a good metaphor for this lost member of our family. Perfect and beautiful, but unfinished.

Gracie shows up most often in my dreams. In fact, a couple of nights ago I had a dream that was very clearly about Gracie, and I woke up in such terrible grief I was crying. But today we are all remembering October 21 of last year, the biggest tragedy my little family has experienced, by far. My divorce from my kids’ father was wrenching and devastating, but we all lived. It pales in comparison to this.

I don’t have anything new or insightful to say about our family’s loss; I’ve grieved and grieved over this past year, and witnessed Katie’s and Trey’s ongoing grief and efforts to find their way forward. The sharpness of the grief has lessened for me, into something like a dull ache that can still stop me, but I don’t experience that every day. It comes in waves. Three weeks ago I was putting groceries in my car at the supermarket and got hit by such a powerful wave of grief and anguish, I had to stop and get in the car and burst out crying, clutching the steering wheel to steady me. It lasted for five minutes, and then I continued putting away the groceries. It’s like that. Grief is an animal that has its own life and it takes up residence. It hibernates sometimes, but it’s still and always there, waiting for you.

And so today I can only acknowledge this one-year anniversary, and honor the memory of our little Grace Louise. We all loved her so much. I didn’t write a post on this day last year, obviously, but I wrote a lot in the 10 days afterwards. This post, written the night before I left to return to New York — never dreaming of the devastation that awaited me — is the most ‘popular’ post I’ve ever written. It has been shared widely, it received a lot of comments and caused so many people to write me private emails, and it’s received the most hits of anything I’ve ever written. It’s titled ‘notes from the mother in the middle of the night‘ and I think it really captures the moment in a way that is true and honest. I cannot read it without crying.

Poetry is such a comfort, and in the days around our loss I posted a good bit of poetry. Sometimes the comfort is nothing more than a clear articulation of the formless feeling that haunts you, but that is a comfort. I just found this one, and it speaks to the effect of time, how easy it is to forget, and how awful it can be.

GRIEF, by Stephen Dobyns

Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.

Your name was the food I lived on;
now my mouth is full of dirt and ash.
To say your name was to be surrounded
by feathers and silk; now, reaching out,
I touch glass and barbed wire.
Your name was the thread connecting my life;
now I am fragments on a tailor’s floor.

I was dancing when I
learned of your death; may
my feet be severed from my body.

Today I am also flying back to Austin so it’s a difficult day in so many ways. Tomorrow will be better. I know it will. xo

sitting with yourself

Recently I came across one of those lists — this one was “50 things life is really about” — and while some items were kind of strange, some felt familiar to me, deep in my gut. One was “find your own bible,” and that idea stimulated yesterday’s post about my bibles. A lot of us bookish folk find our bibles during the upheaval years of our adolescence, and if we’re lucky enough to find just the right book, it stays with us our whole lives, growing with us.

one of those dreadful nights, hard to sit with myself
one of those dreadful nights, hard to sit with myself

Another item on the list was the ability to sit with yourself. This is hard to do, for me, anyway. Some people run away very quickly into the arms of terrible distractors — drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, destructive behaviors of all kinds. Some of us eat. And oh the variety of things that make it hard to sit with ourselves! I can sit through anger and boredom, but loss drives me to the refrigerator. Inadequacy drives me to pace . . . and eventually I’m likely to find the refrigerator, though not as reliably as feelings of loss. I’ve never eaten my way to morbid obesity (or even anything approaching it), but I have definitely relied on eating when I find it hard to sit with myself. And then the spiral of shame that comes as a consequence. Oh, so hard.

I just had to end a relationship that drifted into a place I was nowhere near able to be. It was painful, because the ending hurt someone a lot, someone I valued, someone I really cared about, someone who added so much to my life. I do not like to hurt people — most of us don’t — and I’m too soft for my own good.  It was the right thing to do, but I felt so shitty anyway. He had tears in his eyes, his sorrow was obvious. I have historically not been good at doing this. As the hours passed after I told him, my stomach hurt. I wanted to pace, I wanted to eat, I wanted to distract myself any way I could. But I didn’t. I just kind of sat with it. (Actually, I just kind of lay with it. I didn’t get out of bed yesterday, I just stayed here and worked.)

Meditation helps with this, forcing you to just sit and let the feelings come, and eventually they pass through and away. It’s really funny how hard it is to tolerate those feelings, even though they’re just feelings. And they have little burrs stuck to them, nasty little thoughts. “I led him on, I wasn’t clear enough.” Yes, I tried to be, always. I wasn’t perfect, but perfection isn’t the lone standard. “I am cruel and always hurt people.” No, I try hard not to hurt people, I try very very hard. “Now what will happen to him?” He will be OK, I am not the end-all and be-all in his life. And he participated too, he heard me say the things I said, all along. I was not a perpetrator.

And I guess this is really the point. Sitting with yourself involves talking back, and knowing which side of that inner dialogue is true. If you’re like me, one side feels true but it really isn’t, it’s old voices describing a me who never was. I still feel bad, I still wish this person could  be in my life because he added so much to it, I still wish there hadn’t been a need for this line in the sand, I still wish there weren’t any pain, but that’s just not the case. My stepfather used to snarl, “Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up fastest.” “If wishes were horses beggars would ride.”  I also wish I had a million dollars and a flat stomach, but that’s equally impossible. 🙂

Since I’m working with Jeff, my health coach, I’ve been paying close attention to the kinds of uncomfortable feelings that make me run away from myself to the refrigerator. Mostly, they’re feelings of loss. I feel loss and just want to fill it up with ice cream. Apparently. So that’s information, and I can learn how to sit with feelings of loss and not hurt myself in response.

Sitting with yourself instead of running away from yourself is a big challenge of life, and mastering it helps you be more stable, easier able to roll with what happens — because shit will happen. Loss happens, anger happens, betrayal happens, frustration happens, misunderstanding happens, unfairness happens. And sometimes they happen to you, and on occasion you are the one doing it — even if you don’t mean to. In other words: like me, you may be a delicate flower but you are not a unique flower. You are, of course, but we all participate in humanity.

I wonder — I think loss is hard for us all, anger is probably hard for us all (harder, maybe, for women). What’s particularly hard for you? Have you figured it out? What do you when that thing hits, how do you sit with it, how do you stay with yourself? I’m always looking for clues.

Happy Monday y’all. We’re approaching mid-August, can you believe it?!

fear

fdrIt isn’t that I don’t get this, it’s that I can’t yet figure out how to stop it. When the ground has shaken for so long, and when it’s taken away so much all at once, it’s hard to trust the ground. It’ll take a while. I get that. I really, really do.

And yet I have become nearly paralyzed by fear, and understanding it is not helping me. I wish old Franklin had taken his maxim a little bit further — OK, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, but fear can be crippling! I can see how people become agoraphobics. Now what, Frankie?

It’s showing up like this. When I’m driving, I get more and more afraid that something bad is going to happen, I’ll lose control of the car or someone will crash into me or I’ll go off one of the flyovers, and before long I’m driving 40mph (feels too fast! too fast!) and clenching the steering wheel with such a tight grip I have to peel my fingers off it when I gratefully pull into my driveway. Obviously and ironically, this is a path toward an accident. I ask Trey to please check my brand new tires, sure that there is something terribly wrong with them.

When I watch Funniest Home Videos — one of my all-time favorite shows for some weird reason — when people fall or trip, now my heart races and my palms sweat. What if she broke a bone? What if he broke his neck? That surely killed her! Oh please please please don’t let me fall like that, it would kill me. I’d break my neck and be paralyzed, and then what.

Over the course of my life, during periods of extraordinary stress I developed little spurts of OCD to manage my fear and give me a sense of control, I guess. When I didn’t have a place to live in high school, I started counting everything — my footsteps, my breaths, the cars passing, I always had to be counting or else a bomb was going to go off somewhere, I just knew it. (Metaphor alert! Metaphor alert!) The need to count things stopped as suddenly and mysteriously as it started. At another very stressful time, I moved my head in a square shape with little loops on the corners — I did it without realizing it, all the time. When I’d notice, I’d try to stop but before I knew it I was doing it again. Now, I am clacking my teeth together, very hard, in a rhythm to some song in my head. All the time. My teeth ache, I increasingly have to eat soft food, and I worry about damage to my teeth. When I finally notice it I stop, but the next thing I know I’m doing it again. I sit holding my mouth open slightly to try to stop me from doing it, or to give me a moment of awareness before I start doing it, but so far clack clack clack.

Here’s what I have tried, and continue to try:

      • breathing deeply when I notice any of this and lowering my shoulders away from my ears
      • reassuring myself gently
      • not forcing myself to buck up! get over it!
      • being patient
      • noticing all the times the feared thing doesn’t happen (which is all the time)
      • smiling, because it’s hard to be fearful while you’re smiling (although I think it usually ends up looking more like a grimace, especially in the car)
      • thinking about the deeper reasons for this fear, my feeling of vulnerability to disaster, and noticing the ways I am not actually as vulnerable as it seems

If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’ll be breathing patiently.

good thing of the day: poetry group! Tonight’s the night.

seasons

Elton John has provided the soundtrack for so much of my life, from about the age of 15 to 30. Gee, I guess that’s not really so much, only 15 years (out of 54, only 27% not to be too nerdy about it). This song was from a movie called Friends, from waaaay back in 1971, and Elton John wrote the soundtrack. Few people saw the movie—I’ve never met anyone else who did. It was kind of corny, but I did love this particular song. (The lyrics don’t start until 2.5 minutes in, and the video gets very very corny, but it’s the best one I could find.) “For our world, the circle turns again….”

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seasonI’ve been thinking about seasons a lot lately as a way to come to grips with loss and change. There was a beautiful time in my life when I got to travel and see the world, and I loved every minute of it and knew I was lucky. I always knew I was lucky. That time may be past now, I do not know for sure, but I had it and loved it. There was a time I got to live in dazzling New York City—me, from tiny town Texas, from my background—and it was wonderful and I loved [most of] it. I never failed to feel a thrill in my stomach and chest when I drove across one of the bridges (the GWB most often) and saw that beautiful, beautiful skyline laid out in front of me. I will probably never get to live there again, but I did get to do that in my life. One great thing about the software that came with me is that I rarely become jaded; I’m so grateful for the sense of wonder that I was born with. I was always dazzled by the travel, and by that beautiful city, so while I had it I gratefully soaked it up.

It helps a little bit to think of it that way. Not all the way, not yet, but a little bit.

* * *

A few things I found that I liked for one reason or another:

Happy Monday, y’all. I hope we all have a beautiful week.

good thing of the day: a bowl of cold, crunchy cereal and a steaming hot cup of coffee.

a how-to guide

I am a strong person, I believe that. I’ve been trying to be honest here (and in the rest of my life) about what it’s like to be going through the devastation of the past two and a half months. I think a few people mistake that honesty, misinterpret it, to mean something else—weakness, even—but that’s their deal, not mine. To me, a big part of being strong is being able and willing to feel whatever there is to feel, not to pretend it’s not there, not to hide from it, not to ignore it, but instead to stand there, with as much strength as possible, and face it.  When I was in college, and had three young kids at home and no help, I had to get it while I was sitting in class; I didn’t have the luxury of time to let my mind wander during lecture and then get it later. I had to get it right then, be present, pay attention. And I think of this period of difficulty in a similar way; whatever is happening to me now, I want to go ahead and experience it and face it and deal with it while it’s happening so I don’t have to handle it showing up later, or over the next however long it might reappear.

So it’s terrifying at times, and I feel terrified. It’s so sad sometimes that I have to lie down and clutch the furniture to bear the sorrow, but I do that, and then it eases. It’s lonely, so I sit with the loneliness and try to understand it. It’s empty, and so I absorb the emptiness and try to feel that, and think carefully about how to fill it in the most meaningful way. The losses feel like a tsunami, and so I try to anchor my feet and absorb the wave and still be standing when it washes away. When happiness, or even joy, appears, I try to open my hands and arms and soak it up and get as much restoration from it as I can. When I feel the truth of there being no one here to take care of me, no one to pet me or give me a hug when I’m having a hard time, no one to rub my back, I try to face that feeling and then take good care of myself. It’s hard. It’s exhausting, on top of the exhaustion from grief.

Some people have been very good to/for/with me, good at helping, being there, doing what they can. And other people have pointedly not. I haven’t been surprised by who falls into which group, especially the not-helpful group, though some of the helpers have been a little surprising — not that they helped, but that they were particularly thoughtful in a specific way, usually born of having experienced hard times themselves.

I don’t know how useful this how-to guide will be, because it may be so idiosyncratic to me that it won’t apply to others. That’s probably true of a couple of items, but I’ll bet it’s generally good. If you have a friend or acquaintance who gets blasted by life, here is my advice:

What to do or say:

  • Just say you’re thinking about her! That’s helpful. If it occurs to you to drop a little note of some kind, even a text or an email, you might be surprised just how much it can help. You might send it at just the right time without knowing it (because for someone facing a lot of stuff, it’s actually always just the right time).
  • Listen. That’s always good.
  • Real mail! Man alive, I can’t tell you what that did for me, the several times someone went out of their way and sent me something in the mail. I got the boost when they asked for my address (a real boost that day), and then a surprise second boost the day the mail arrived. It can just be a small thing — you know how great it is to get real mail.
  • If you’re nearby, propose meeting for a drink, or coffee, or a walk, or a movie. Be specific! She’s probably glad to do something you suggest, and unable to suggest something herself. People in sorrow and trouble welcome distraction, even when they are trying so hard to be strong. You can let your friend set the pace of whether to talk about the trouble or not, and just follow her lead.
  • Periodic short encouraging notes. And really, brief is just fine, it does the trick.
  • Be patient.

What NOT to do or say:

  • Just for a while, handle your own little problems, or turn to other friends. Just for a while, don’t make demands on your overburdened friend. If you hear her say that she’s feeling fragile and her resources are low, take that information as a cue not to ask her to handle your life too.  (And p.s., it doesn’t count if you make a demand but say, “I probably shouldn’t be asking you.”) And then, especially, do not be critical of her for not helping you. Of course, if something big happens to you, good or bad, share it with your friend anyway.
  • Don’t comment on the “drama.” No one but an actress likes to be told that, in the first place, but in the second place who would ask to have a string of terrible things happen, who wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by it without it being labeled “drama!” There’s something kind of blaming in that, or at least it’s so often used that way that it carries the connotation, whether you mean it or not.
  • Even if you think her grief is dragging on too long, keep that thought to yourself. If you just have to talk about that, talk to other people, though who likes to be gossiped about behind their backs. (But if it’s really getting worrisome and you are scared for your friend and her well-being, you might eventually ask, in a loving way, how she feels she’s getting through the grief, to open a conversation.) If you’re feeling this way, instead take the opportunity to quit thinking about your own irritation or annoyance and think about helping her.
  • Don’t simply say, “If you need anything — anything at all — just call! I’m serious!” Or if you do, don’t sit by the phone waiting, because that call isn’t going to come. Really, you’re just saying that to make yourself feel better so you can believe you helped (and we all know that, because we’ve all said it, and we’ve all heard it). So don’t do that — there are very very easy things to do that really will help, and won’t demand too much of you. Like a quick email or a note.
  • Do not be impatient. If that’s too hard for you, then do what you have to do for yourself, of course, but don’t take it out on her. She’s got all she can do trying to be patient with herself, I’m pretty sure.

And one between here and there: If you are the primary support to someone who is in need, be sure to rely on your own support network! As my friend reminded me (and I know very well from the first 6 months of last year), it’s draining and exhausting being the primary support to a suffering person, and if you get plenty of your own support, it’ll help keep you from doing things on the “don’t do that” list. But more importantly, it’ll help you keep going, too. We’re all so connected to each other.

So that’s today’s how-to guide, born of a particularly hard day.

good thing of the day: thoughtful friends and family, blue skies, and inner strength.

being still and quiet

My goal today was to begin working again. Yep, that was my goal. I opened my laptop and went to my work email, responded to some of them — the easy ones, the people who have become something like friends — and then went downstairs. Got some more coffee. Piddled. Decided it would be a “big help” if I cleaned the kitchen. Did that then came back upstairs, opened my laptop. Decided some cherry Pop-Tarts would be a treat. Toasted them and came back upstairs, glanced at my laptop, decided I needed to wander downstairs.

Talked with Trey and Katie, wandered into the kitchen. Wandered upstairs, turned around and came back down went back up to take clothes out of the dryer. Plopped them on my bed. Back downstairs.

IBC root beer, that’s the ticket. Popped the cap, brought it upstairs, opened my laptop. Facebook. NYTimes. Emailed my husband, back downstairs for cheetos. Back upstairs, really need to work, Lorraine, I know it, shut up, back downstairs. Another cup of coffee, that’s it. Back upstairs, gotta help my sister identify a painting, very important, must do that. Check the NYTimes, how’s the storm.

Really need to work maybe some ice cream, yeah that’s it. Back downstairs. Flail, flail, flail. Junk food, junk time wasting, can’t read can’t work.

I need to just sit still, just be quiet, just be, for a while. I’m partly on Big Profound Period Overload, and I’m partly exhausted emotionally, and I’m out of pocket, not here not there. It’s hard to do nothing, but it’s hard to do anything, too. My husband and son are in NYC, where the big storm is hitting, and I’m not there. My daughter Katie is at sea in her grief, and I cannot do anything but bob in the sea near the shore, no matter how much I want to be out in that deep water beside her because our losses are so different.  I think I’ll take a walk and just be quiet, not glance at my phone, not listen to music, just be outside. 

This is what it’s like to be going through my life right now.