Yes, I’m still here, and thankful to be so.

It’s been hard to write. My thoughts are so scattered, and most of my energy has been poured into coping strategies for managing this upended world in which we find ourselves. Like so many of you, I am sheltering-in-place at home, working remotely, going out only to shop for groceries once a week or so.

I am an introvert so being alone is normally my comfort zone, but this. This is more than a respite for introverts. This is isolation, and it’s hard. Yes, as an introvert, I have always needed downtime, alone-time, to recharge my batteries, but this prolonged isolation is unbalanced, unhealthy. So, while we have been physically distanced, I have strived to remain socially connected with texts, phone calls, video chats, and 6-foot conversations in the neighborhood or on the local walking trail. Still, it’s not enough.

If routine was important to me before, and it was, routine has now been elevated to ritual. I am growing concerned about how structure can too easily become stricture, but for now, I need it. I need it to stay sane.

Regression. There’s been some of that, too. This is an emotional landscape that I am familiar with but had moved on from; the anxiety of leaving the house, the panicky feeling pulling out the neighborhood, the flight response at the store.

I’ve had some more grief dreams. They seem to crop up more when I’m not intentional about processing feelings on the regular.

In one dream, Paul and I were in our “home town” where we lived for twelve years, but we were leaving. We said we would visit on weekends and during the summer. When I woke, I was disoriented. Then, I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I’m by myself now. We’ll never go back there together.”

One day, I fell asleep on the couch. As I was waking, I heard Paul on the stairs. I called out to him, “Honey, will you get my eye drops, please?” Yeah. I actually said it out loud before I caught myself.

I’ve had anxiety dreams, too, where the roof is leaking or I’m chasing fire. Yes, chasing flames and trying to catch them in my hands, but they keep slipping through my fingers. I keep trying to grab them, but I can’t.

I’m also having recurring dreams about the television show Lost, particularly the portion of the show where we are introduced to the character, Desmond, who lives alone in the underground bunker, the guy who has to push a button every so many hours or something terrible happens.

BUT! There has also been progress. Check this out!

Yep! I’ve been able to focus on healthy food habits; shopping, eating…and cooking! As in cooking just for me. This.is.huge. For the first time since Paul died, I can honestly say that I am doing a good job of taking care of myself. This feels like a major shift for me. It feels like I’ve moved past something, not like anything is behind me, but more like I’ve cleared an important hurdle.

So, now what? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably because the isolation of being home alone and physically distanced from others has been extreme. I can clearly see now that I am so very capable of managing on my own and could do so for as long as I want…but is that what I want? Ohhh, now there’s a question! It’s the first time it’s even occurred to me to ask myself if that’s what I want, and if that’s not what I want, if I don’t want to be on my own, what then?

As usual, I have no idea what comes next, but I am so grateful for how far I’ve come in this grief and healing process. Making gratitude a continuous practice and staying focused on connecting, learning, and growing have made all the difference. Despite all the uncertainty in the world right now, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m going to be ok. Come what may. I’m going to be ok.

Here’s our quarantine, porch picture for posterity; surrounded by my fur-children, my constant companions, badly in need of a day at the salon, no make up. Just me. Smiling and grateful for the Lord’s provision, for the struggles that have made me stronger, and looking forward to what’s next.

Be safe and stay well, my friends, Malia

An Open Letter to All the Men who are Not My Husband (Well, almost all!)

Now, more so than ever before in my lifetime, I am beyond, blessed with female friendships. In my younger years, the loss of my mother at such a young age made bonding with other women difficult and tenuous at best.

Today, my women friends mean the world to me. My sister-in-law and my nieces, a beautifully renewed and blessedly restored relationship with my step-mother, and the addition of my son’s fiancé and her female family members have all been most welcome injections of estrogen-based love in my life.

I’ve written before about how important these connections are to me, how hard I’ve worked to cultivate these friendships with these amazing, empowered, resilient women and at my husband’s urging no less with those fateful words, “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.” So, now. Now, I have these friendships, these bonds, where expression of emotion is valued, where it actually contributes to the health of the relationship. Wow! That has blown my hair back!

And, then, there are the men in my life. For many, many years, I was the rare girl surrounded by a family full of males in various stages of maturity; my dad and his lifelong friends, my uncles on all sides, my brother and all of his friends, my husband, his brothers, my father-in-law, my son and his passel of friends. I fondly call it boy-world, and I am a card-carrying, lifetime member of the boy-mom club.

Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that this is not some sort of treatise on the differences between men and women, if such a thing even exists. I am strictly sharing my experience. Period.

So, let me explain. Living in boy-world and becoming a boy-mom, I found that I had to be a little tougher. My skin had to be a little thicker. Open, emotional expression just didn’t carry weight in that world. Please don’t get me wrong. We certainly had two-way communication where we shared how we felt about subjects, but the men in my life just didn’t commonly use the language of emotion that is so skillfully wielded by the women I know and love. It’s not at all that I couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to be emotionally expressive. It’s just that I found that it wasn’t productive. It didn’t move conversations or situations forward. So, I adapted. I adapted my style of communication, the way I expressed what I was feeling.

Honestly, I used to love it when Paul or our son would complain about me (yes, really!), would shoot each other knowing looks when they were using an extra measure of patience with one of my big ideas, or would lovingly joke about my little eccentricities or quirks.  To me, it meant they loved me fully, me and all my imperfections. It was a great comfort for me, a bit of a perfectionist, to know that I didn’t have to be perfect in order for them to fully love me. They got me. They completely accepted me, and took joy in me.

All of this to say, I am so thankful for all of these men in my life, too.

I love that my son now offers me wise counsel. I have sought his input on numerous occasions in the last two years since his father passed away. He never flinches. He never fails to tell it like it is and protect my best interest.

And so, so many other men in my circle of family, friends, neighbors, church family, and colleagues have stepped in and stepped up to help me over and over again. It feels good to seek and receive their assistance and guidance when needed; like when the hot water heater quit working, when the garage door broke, when the dryer vent needed replacing, when a hurricane blew out the porch screens, when I needed advice on how to handle situations. And, then, too, when my emotions were too high, and I needed an objective point of view to help me sort things out, or when I needed protection from others who were trying to take advantage.

I value their honest feedback (you know who you are!), their words of encouragement (you know who you are!!), the challenges they’ve presented me with (yes, you!), and even their gentle correction when my perception was in error or I was just plain wrong (thank you, that would have been a huge mistake!).

I.am.thankful.

I can certainly, absolutely take care of myself. I know that now, but thankfully, I don’t have to. Not all of the time anyway.

Malia

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m calling it quits.

This annual New Year’s Day post needs a musical overture. So, I’m going to set it to another selection from the soundtrack to my grief, “Morning Has Broken”, except in my mind, I have lately come to think of it as ‘Mourning’ Has Broken.

“Morning Has Broken” is a song made popular by Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) version of it that was released in 1971. What I didn’t know until recently is that it was actually written by Eleanor Farjeon as a poem. The poem was then set to an old, Scottish tune and published as a hymn for the first time around 1931. When it appeared as a poem, its title was listed as “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”. Paul’s birthday frequently falls on the first day of Spring. The hymn was included in our church’s hymnal, and Paul and I sang it together on more Sunday mornings than I can count. The song is sweet and nostalgic, reminiscent of the simple but magnificent gift of each new day. It’s a call to gratitude.

Here are the lyrics. My guess is that you are already humming the tune.

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dew fall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

***

Just in case you haven’t caught on yet…I love words. I always have. Before I could actually write, I would pretend to write by making excessive scribbles across pages and pages of newsprint paper that was sold in bulky pads at the grocery store. Then, I would spread them out before me or paste them to the walls in my room. Thinking back now, this must have seemed very strange to my parents, but they also must have understood my internal drive because when I was five, I was gifted with a pint-sized but fully functioning typewriter. To this day, it is one of the best gifts I have ever received. It was magical because while I was well on my way to using letters to put words together to express my thoughts, the typewriter was very nearly able keep up with my mind where my hand was not.

I believe words have power. I have always been cautious and deliberate with the way I choose my words when writing, of course, but also in talking with others. The old adage “Mean what you say and say what you mean” could be my life’s motto.

Google provides a fascinating look at the way we use words through their Google Books Ngram Viewer. An N-gram is a word particle, word, or group of words that we can track through text or speech. Your phone’s predictive text feature uses information about N-grams to offer you choices about what you want to type next.

Google Books Ngram Viewer gives us a visual that shows us a word’s use over time. I’ve been toying lately with the words mourning and grieving to help me delineate where I am in this process. I hear and read the word grieving a lot, but I noticed that the word mourning is not as widely used and I was curious about that. Check out the Ngram Viewers for these two words.

When I look at this graph, my eyes go to the lumps and bumps, peaks and dips. Notice that the peak for the occurrence of the word mourning occurs around 1860. I immediately thought of the American civil war. Then, there’s the upward trend that appears to have begun sometime between 1980 and 1990. The war on drugs? The gulf wars? The rise of opioid deaths? Or all of the above?

Take a look at the Ngram Viewer for the word grieving.

So, like me, you might thinking, “Whoa, Nellie! What happened between 1960 and 1980?”

Well, I’ll tell you. In 1969, physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her landmark book about grief, On Death and Dying:  What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & Their Own Families. Through this book, she introduced her theory of the five stages of grief now known as the Kubler-Ross model and with that we, as a society and culture, had a new framework for understanding and discussing grief.

The word mourning seems more intense to me than the word grieving. Mourning is a noun while grieving is a verb, an action. A-ha! Mourning is a place and space. Grieving is something I do. Mourning seems to take place for a specific, but not given, period of time and according to the definition is marked by deep sorrow.

I am ready now to leave that period of deep sorrow behind. So, I quit. I officially quit mourning.

Mourning has broken. Mine is the morning! Malia

Sunday Dinner #5 – Melting. It’s not just for cooking and green-faced witches.

On a recent Friday morning drive to work, I had a complete and total meltdown. Like butter in a hot pan.

Lately, my life has been like one of those cinematic devices used to show the passage of time on TV shows or in movies. You know the ones where they put the progress of days or months or even years on a loop set to music that features fast moving, split screen images of typical, daily events like the person brushing their teeth, going to work in their car, on the train or bus, eating dinner, going to bed, and rising the next morning to repeat the whole process again. And it loops. Over and over again.

Clearly, I had been on autopilot. Just trying to plow through the most difficult days of the year; those days leading up to the now second anniversary of Paul’s illness and death. The meltdown, my friends, was epic. That’s what you get you keep shoving the feelings down instead of letting them go as they bubble up. I know better, but so many things about this second year have been harder. I was tired of wrestling with the grief all the time; thought I could just put it in a box for a little while, please God, just a little while. But I paid the price.

And you know, after that meltdown I felt better and have continued to feel somewhat better. This next part amazes me still, but I promise you it actually happened. As I was sitting in the car desperately trying to compose myself, there on the radio was one of our favorite songs, “I Can See Clearly Now”, originally written and performed by Johnny Nash in 1972 but made more popular when performed by Jimmy Cliff in 1993. It’s one of a slew of songs that make up the soundtrack to my grief . The comprehensive list of songs is fodder for another post. Turns out that people sing about grief a lot. There might be something to that.

Paul was teenager in 1972 and just discovering his love for music of all kinds. In 1972, I had not yet had my second birthday, but this song was always a touchstone for both us. When it came on the radio that meltdown morning, I was stunned, and my tears were stopped in their tracks. Clearly, God had allowed me a message from my husband, and it gave me the courage to continue with my day.

“I can see clearly now” was so popular and sing-songy. I’m sure many of you are humming it now and know the lyrics by heart, but here they are just in case you don’t. They are, in my opinion, lyrical genius in a nearly Rogers & Hammerstein kind of way. The beat is reminiscent of the Caribbean and marries perfectly to the message.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

***

I did indeed make Sunday Dinner for my family recently. But the meal itself was actually just a typical weekday meal for our family back in the day. You know the day; the day we went to work, rushed through homework while Daddy cooked, ate together, piled the dishes in the sink and breezed out the door to baseball, boy scouts, church, a school event, or just went for an early spring stroll down wide sidewalks and long streets all the while chasing fireflies in the gloaming before the street lights start their losing battle against the dark of night.

No recipes this week. Just meals from memory. Meals I know by heart.

I started by making Paul’s Pimento Cheese. This is one of those dishes that is made a little different and tastes a little different every time, but it’s always good. Use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be creative. Use different cheeses every time you make it. We certainly did. You can shred the cheese yourself from a block or wheel or buy it already shredded. Finely or coarsely shredded makes little difference. Use as much or as little cheese as you need based on the number of people you are serving. This time I used 2-3 cups of cheese, but I have made as much as eleven pounds at a time. The secret to Paul’s Pimento Cheese is that it doesn’t even have any pimientos in it! True story. Instead of pimientos, Paul always used roasted, red peppers. The charring on the roasted peppers adds a smoky flavor to the cheese that makes all the difference. Many people say it has a certain flavor that they just can’t put their finger on. The roasted, red peppers are the source. Again, there’s no right or wrong amount here. I just keep adding peppers until it looks like it has enough. Add 2-4 tablespoons of Duke’s mayonnaise to get the ball rolling and then add some more a little at a time until it’s a good consistency; sticky and scoop-able but not wet. If it’s wet, you’ve gone too far. No matter. Add some more cheese and the day is saved. The final ingredient is another one that makes Paul’s Pimento Cheese unique, a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. It amps up the flavor of the cheese. Serve with crackers of your choice. A hardier cracker works best.

The main course was roast pork loin, mashed potatoes with gravy, butter beans, and a cornbread muffin. Nothing makes me feel like a straight-up 1940s housewife like a roast in the oven. I poured a little olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish and rolled the loin until it was smeared on all sides. Then, I coated the loin in salt, black pepper, and red pepper. I covered it with tin foil and baked it in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat. I like an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for pork. I let the roast rest before serving to soak back up all the juices that were expelled during cooking.

For homemade mashed potatoes, peel and cut up the potatoes into roughly one-quarter to one-half inch pieces. You can use any type of potatoes and you can leave a bit of the peel on, too, if you like. Bring the potato pieces to a hard boil, and use a fork to test for softness. When fully cooked through, drain the water off by using a colander, and transfer the still hot, boiled potatoes to a bowl. Add salt, butter, and milk to your liking, and beat with a hand mixer to your desired thickness. Use caution with the milk or your mashed potatoes will be potato soup. In a fix, we have been known to use half-and-half, cream, or even sour cream instead of milk. You can use a store bought gravy, or you can use the liquid from the roast thickened with corn starch or flour to make a gravy. We did either depending on how much time we had.

Fresh butter beans are best but sometimes fresh frozen beans are all that’s available. They work, too. Our family always starts a pot of beans with a piece of what we call fat meat or salt meat. In the south, this is mostly referred to as fatback, but I have found that to be a general term used to describe any hunk of mostly fat that has been salt cured. Some people just use a couple slices of bacon or a ham hock. Either way, it adds flavor and a little oily moisture to the beans. Bring to a boil and simmer as long as you like but make sure the water doesn’t boil away.

Cornbread muffins instead of biscuits are especially good when the meal is hardy or heavy. The sweetness and lightness of cornbread balances out the weight of a more savory entrée.

For dessert, I made strawberry shortcake. Strawberries are ripe in the fields at this time of year so it seemed like a natural choice. I cored and sliced the strawberries and placed them in a lidded bowl. I added one tablespoon of sugar, stirred, and placed in the refrigerator to chill. The moisture from the berries combine with the sugar and makes just enough of a light syrup to soak into the cake or bread you choose. In this case, I chose an egg-white, or angel food, cake for my base, and then stacked with strawberries and homemade whipped cream.

Paul had an aversion to store bought whipped cream in a tub or aerosol can. He said they were phony or fake so he would always take the time to make it by hand. It’s not hard. It just takes a little time.

Use a pint or a quart of heavy whipping cream depending on how much you need. Pour into a larger bowl than you think you need or you’ll end up with cream splattered all over everywhere including you. Trust me. Use a hand mixer on the highest setting and let it roll until the cream is thick enough to scoop and stick to a spoon without falling off when turned over. Some people add a teaspoon or two of sugar while mixing, but our family does not.

***

On nights like this, I always pause for a moment and look at my family all gathered around our table, talking, laughing, smiling, sharing their lives with each other, the big moments and the small, eating, enjoying, remembering, and it all just feels so right. I am so grateful. The gifts my husband gave me continue to bear fruit in my life and in the lives of those we love. It makes me want to shout, “Look, honey, I’m doing good! I’m really doing good!”

Malia

The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part III

We now resume our regularly scheduled grief (uh, I mean healing!) programming.

Just in case my Sunday Dinner posts have given you the false impression that I have it all together, here’s a Monday dinner post complete with picture of glorious meal making <insert sarcasm and eye-rolling emoji>. Yep, that’s right, a fried egg, shredded cheese, a days old biscuit….and ice cream. Embarrassing. But I told you. Keeping.it.real.

***

My grief has a tendency to pile up. It piles up in great banks like snow lining both sides of a winter worn street, like Saharan sand dunes moving across the globe through eons of time and then seemingly, suddenly arriving tall and looming on the landscape. Grief piles up one pebbly grain and flake at a time until it reaches a hinge, a tipping point, and then crashes heavy upon my heart and psyche.

Many of you may be familiar with the Native-American naming tradition. Think *Dances-With-Wolves*. In that tradition, people are given names that are construed from their nature or based on characteristics of their personality. I became aware of this tradition when I was young while reading and listening to Native-American stories where the characters had wonderfully descriptive names that revealed their inner-self and piqued the readers’ interest regarding how they received their name. But these names are not just based on personality, and they are not static. In the Native-American naming tradition, a person’s name can change based on their life experiences. As one learns, grows, and changes, their name can change to reflect their evolving identity. Native-American names are also typically connected to nature, maintaining our connection to the world around us, and connected to their tribe, emphasizing the value of connection with others.

A lesser known and understood aspect of the Native-American naming tradition is that they often have a spiritual or sacred name that is known only to themselves and their tribe’s spiritual leader. These hidden names allow the person to maintain their core identity in the face of life’s inevitable degradations or even trauma. Hmmmm, very interesting.

When the grief piles up, my world view is disrupted. My perception is distorted. It’s like looking at the world reflected in a cracked mirror. Everything seems more intense. It’s the atmosphere, the look of the sky when the light is slanted from a certain direction, the trees, the direction of the wind, and the birds. The birds outside my bathroom window make peculiar early morning chirps and trills that grate and hack away at my nerves. The sound of it makes me physically wince. If I were Native-American, my current name would be Angry-With-Birds.

Starting with February 12, there are a string of dates that are tattooed on my skin in invisible ink, fused to my insides. These dates are stuck in my teeth. I use my tongue to pry and pick, but I can no more unstick these calendar dates from my psyche than I could a handful of the sticky, gummy fruits clinging to the teeth in my mouth. They feel like boulders, rocky outcroppings, cleaving to my emotional landscape. The world is different on these dates. I don’t like the look of the air. I don’t like the feel of the car as I’m going down the road. I continuously have to remind my shoulders to stay down otherwise I find them crowding my neck and reaching for my ears and chin.

This time of year the triggers are everywhere. My senses remember everything. My body recorded everything in my muscles, bones, and tissues. Every moment of the last 35 days of Paul’s life is carved into the very fiber of my body and being; the memory of them communicated from one cell to another like a biological game of telephone until it was transmitted throughout my entire body. The right combination of sensory input and I instantly feel dread and foreboding. The input is too much. I feel crowded all the time. I want to tell everyone to just please hold still, put my finger to my lips and “shhhhhhh”. Just, everyone, please hold still and be quiet.

I actually have a startle response when I’m like this. I am startled by normal things that should not be startling; a phone ringing, a door closing, someone walking by me. I am sound sensitive; hypersensitive to physical stimuli, too much talking, too much movement. I say to myself, “This is crazy!”

Is there such a thing as a grief hangover? Because I think that’s what this is.

And, my dreams! My dreams have been, well, memorable. I have had a series of anxiety dreams.

In one dream I am frantically tearing the house apart looking for my computer but can never seem to find it. I keep looking in the same places over and over again thinking that it absolutely must be there, but it is not.

In a second more telling dream, I am driving around town in my car, however, there is something wrong. It is not driving properly. At first, I can’t figure out what is wrong but then I realize I have a flat tire. So, I’m driving around town on a flat tire, and I keep saying to myself, “Oh, no, I have a flat tire!” But I keeping driving on the flat tire anyway, and I’m asking myself, “Why am I driving on a flat tire?” I know I have a flat tire and yet I just keep on driving around. I just continue on my way saying, “I know I have a flat tire. Why am I driving around on a flat tire? This is weird. I shouldn’t be doing this. Why can’t I stop driving?” I never stopped or pulled over to get it fixed. It didn’t even occur to me call anybody for help. I just kept driving around. Analyze that! Why don’t ya’?! Ha!

And then this one. I dreamt that Paul was back. He was an old man, very sweet looking, gray-haired and a little hunched over and….he was pregnant. Weird. I know. My response to this in the dream was so typical of me, ignoring the absurd and going into full-on problem solving mode, logical, rational, calm, resolved. I was saying to him, “Well, this really shouldn’t be possible. I’m not sure what we’re going to do, but we’ll work it out.” If you’ve got any ideas about that one, let me know! Or, wait, maybe I don’t want to know. Nevermind.

***

This post has been in the queue for well more than a week. I’ve written it in small chunks as the days have drifted by. I’m not sure why it has been so hard for me to, first of all, write it, and then second to that to “put it out there”. I suppose the strong emotions are interrupting the flow of thoughts like debris clogging a pipe.

I’ve been really busy in the last several weeks, really preoccupied and distracted. I’ve struggled with motivation and felt a little paralyzed at times. This is all normal, of course, and I understand all of it, but it is still a struggle for me to accept and be ok with not being ok. I have to ramp up the positive self-talk and keep coaching the voice in my head to go easy on me.

My mind and my heart have often remembered the Camino during this recent episode. I remember that sometimes the path was smooth. Sometimes it was rocky. Sometimes I could see the horizon, fresh, clear, and hopeful, but sometimes I was hemmed in by trees and villages unable to see what was over the next rise or around the next turn. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had companions. Sometimes the direction was certain, but sometimes I was confused about which way to go. Sometimes the wind was at my back, warm and comforting, and sometimes the wind was in my face, bracing and cold. Sometimes I was energized and eager, and sometimes I was tired, frustrated, and aching. Sometimes I struggled up hills and steep inclines, and sometimes I enjoyed the respite of a gentle downhill slope.

So, now. Now I know why I was led, called, to the Camino. It’s laid out now in my soul, a road map to grief and all its many twists, turns, hills, and straightaways. Thank you, Lord, for showing me The Way.

And, just in case you’re wondering, there are more Sunday dinners to come.

It’s just a matter of time, Malia

Sunday Dinner #4

This week I was so pleased to make Paul’s Lasagna.

Lasagna is one of those dishes that has no formal recipe but everyone seems to know how to make. Paul’s version of lasagna certainly evolved over the years. He never made it the same way twice, and it was always good. It was also one of a very small set of family favorites that he trusted me, his culinary-challenged woman, to prepare with only a little oversight from him.

He often made lasagna when we had company. So, many of our family and friends out there will remember having Paul’s Lasagna when visiting or having dinner with us. And, of course, lasagna makes great leftovers. True story, I have been known to eat it cold, right out the dish, the next morning. This occasion was no exception.

On this particular evening, I was hosting Paul’s parents and the newest members of our family, my son’s future in-laws.

I began by cooking the lasagna noodles and browning the meat. We use at least nine of the long, flat lasagna noodles per 9×13 casserole dish, but I always cook more than I will need because inevitably one or more of the noodles tear or stick to the pot or something else that makes them unusable. Also, I add a dollup of olive oil to the boiling water. It keeps the noodles from sticking to each other. Occasionally, Paul and I would make the pasta from scratch. If the pasta is fresh, then it does not have to be boiled or pre-cooked. It can be added straight to the lasagna recipe.

Paul used to make lasagna with ground beef but years ago began using mild, Italian sausage instead. I use about a pound of sausage per 9×13 casserole dish. Italian sausage can sometimes be found in the store in bulk but more often I find it packaged already in a casing. Simply remove the casing before browning it in the pan. I find the easiest way to remove it is by using a pair of kitchen shears to cut the casing lengthwise and roll the sausage right out into the pan. Use a spatula to break it into smaller, bite-sized pieces as it is browning.

Once the sausage and noodles are prepped, you’re ready to start assembling the lasagna. I began with a light pour of spaghetti sauce across the bottom of the dish, just enough to cover it from edge to edge. Then, place the first three lasagna noodles lengthwise. More sauce. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. Another layer of lasagna noodles. Sauce again. Alfredo sauce, too. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. You get the idea! One of the layers typically includes ricotta cheese in addition to the shredded cheddar and mozzarella that have already been used in previous layers.

I was feeling sassy so I got creative with a second, smaller lasagna and included a layer of fresh spinach. That’s the beauty of lasagna. You can make it your own by adding whatever ingredients suit your fancy.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when you can see it bubbling around the edges. Uncover for the last five minutes to get the cheeses really melt-y. Salad and garlic bread completed the meal.

***

Dessert was a special one. Both Paul and I are from farming families with fond childhood memories of spending time on the farm. So, throughout our son’s childhood, we would frequently visit the local farm stand of a very large, peach farm, McLeod Farms, in McBee, South Carolina. Their peaches are sold under the Mac’s Pride brand throughout the United States and Canada. They also grow other crops for local sales like corn, blackberries, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, greens, broccoli, okra, and so on.

In the farm stand, you can find fresh produce, baked and canned goods, and homemade ice cream. Families and school groups frequent the farm to walk the fields, pick produce, and visit the tractor museum. There is also a farm-to-table restaurant and annual festivals to celebrate the harvests. Families can go for a hayride or simply sit at the picnic tables or in rocking chairs and enjoy time together. This was the setting of many a well-spent, lazy day for our family.

Each year the farm invites people to enter a contest for the best recipes that utilize the farm’s produce. Paul loved trying out the winning recipes. This dessert, Peach Enchiladas, is one of those winning recipe entries, and it was an instant hit in our family.

Use 4 – 6 fresh peaches. Peel and quarter, and wrap each piece in crescent roll dough. Arrange in a deep baking dish.

Melt two sticks of butter. Add one and one-half cups of sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon to the melted butter and stir until well blended. Pour or spoon the sugar mixture on top of each wrapped peach quarter.

Finish with the SECRET INGREDIENT…..Moutain Dew! Yes, that’s right. Pour twelve ounces of the good stuff into the dish. Try to avoid pouring it directly over the sugar mixture. Instead, pour it into one of the little, empty spaces between the wrapped peach quarters and let it fill the dish from the bottom.  

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Through the magic of heat and time, the Mountain Dew transforms into a thick, ooey-gooey, sugary, cinnaminny filling.

My son knew I was making lasagna, but I had not told him what I was serving for dessert. When I took this out of the oven, my son let out an “Ooooo, Mama!” and, with that, I knew I had nailed it!

As I was making, serving, and eating it, I was remembering warm, sunny, clear-blue-sky days of us; riding in the haywagon, walking in the fields, picking berries, and sitting in rocking chairs enjoying homemade strawberry or peach ice cream, laughing, smiling, loving each other.

Those were good, good days, and I am so thankful, Malia

Sunday Dinner #3

I’m on a roll!

This week I was excited to cook for my son, his fiancé, and his fiancé’s parents. I made one of Paul’s classics; Greek chicken with roasted potatoes and green beans, Caesar salad, yeast roll, and a chocolate pound cake.

Let’s start with dessert!

The pound cake is legendary in the southern United States. My grandmother’s pound cake is one of my earliest holiday memories as much for the fuss that my family made when they ate it as for the taste. Interestingly, I also vividly remember both the smell and the texture. My grandmother’s recipe was the traditional pound cake flavored with almond or vanilla extract, and the interior was dense and moist while the outside was bumpy and just ever so slightly crisp and crusty on the top. She always served it warm. Honestly, there is nothing else quite like it.

Paul’s family favors a chocolate pound cake so that’s what I made for the newest members of our family. This pound cake calls for 1 cup of butter, one-half cup of vegetable shortening, 3 cups of sugar, 3 cups of all-purpose flour, one-half teaspoon of baking powder, one-half cup of cocoa powder, one-half teaspoon of salt, 5 eggs, 1 cup of milk, and 2 teaspoons of vanilla.

First, sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cocoa, and salt) and set aside. Next, cream the butter, vegetable shortening, and sugar in an electric mixer. Add the eggs one at a time; blending well after each addition. Then, add the dry mixture and the milk alternating, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Finally, stir in the vanilla.

Pour into a greased 10-inch tube pan and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes. Give it the ol’ jiggle test and test for done-ness by inserting a toothpick. The toothpick should emerge clean or very nearly clean. I say very nearly clean because it is my firm belief that the best pound cakes all have a soft spot; not wet, not gooey, but soft like very thick, slice-able pudding. My oven runs a little hot, and I was using a pan with a dark coating. So, I tested the cake at 50 minutes and decided to let it stay in another five minutes. That’s five minutes short of the recommended baking time.

The first time I made a pound cake I was heavily pregnant with our son. I must have been feeling the affects of hormones and being so near my due date because I was doing a lot of nesting. Paul was at work, and at some point during the day, I decided I would just up and make a pound cake, something I had never done before, to surprise him with when he came home. Well, let’s just say he was certainly surprised. I did manage to bake a decent pound cake considering it was my first attempt, but the effort was mighty. That cake whooped my butt! I was exhausted, exasperated, and must have been a sight to behold as I was peppered with flour and swipes of chocolate batter from nearly head to toe. I also remember how proud my husband was of me, how delighted he was as he sliced and ate that cake saying, “This is amazing. You did so good, baby!”

On this day, twenty-four years later, I was so happily(!) wrapped up in my memories of that first chocolate pound cake that I forgot to take pictures of each step in the process. I had put the cake in the oven and was licking the spoon before I realized I had not made enough pictures!

***

The main course was Greek chicken with roasted potatoes and fresh green beans. I used six large bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts with rib meat. Begin with a generous pour of olive oil in the bottom of a deep baking dish. Arrange the chicken pieces.

Again, following Paul’s technique, I made a little pocket between the skin and the flesh of each piece of chicken. Into the little pockets, I stuffed a couple of pads of butter. This keeps the chicken super moist and tender. Then, pour some more olive oil over the pieces and sprinkle heavily with an all-purpose Greek seasoning. Turn the pieces over and repeat the seasoning. Turn the pieces back over and season once again making sure that each piece of chicken is well coated with the seasoning. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chicken. Cut the lemon into quarters and place in the baking dish with the chicken.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for approximately one and one-half hours. Finally, uncover and place back in the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes to crisp up the skin of the chicken. Also, I always use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. Typically, this is my signal that the chicken is ready to be uncovered for crisping the skin.

***

Roasted potatoes with fresh green beans accompanied the chicken. I use small white/yellow and red-skinned potatoes. The larger ones I slice in half and the smallest ones I just leave whole. Toss with olive oil, Greek seasoning, and green beans and squeeze in more fresh lemon juice. Slice the squeezed lemon and toss in as well. Bake for about 30 minutes, less if the dish or pan is shallow and you have more room to spread the potatoes out.

I made a simple Caesar salad and yeast rolls to round out the meal.

***

I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy cooking. It has led to both moments and whole swaths of time filled with joy, laughter, some tears, memories, and pure gratitude.

It’s really amazing. I think of Paul; all those years, all those meals. None of us had any idea how meaningful and precious they would one day be. Paul’s love of cooking for his family has become part of the legacy of love he left to us.

I’m going to leave off with the blessing we say at every meal. It just seems so fitting.

Lord, make us truly thankful for these and all our many blessings, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others. In Christ’s name, Amen

Malia

Sunday Dinner #2

I’m getting good at this!

For my next adventure in cooking, I prepared Filipino chicken, rice, steamed asparagus, pear salad, biscuit, and honey-bun cake.

This Filipino chicken recipe is iconic in our family. Paul’s mother picked it up while they were living in Japan in the late 1960s, and it has been a family favorite for over 50 years. Think about that. Three generations of this family have sat around the dinner table and enjoyed this meal together. They have smiled, laughed, and argued, listened, celebrated, mourned, have been sad, worried, excited, angry. This meal is what connects us today to the memory of all of those moments in time.

***

The dish itself is easy and delicious, warm and steamy goodness; rich, salty and sweet. And it’s classically Filipino with an adobo sauce as the base. The recipe calls for two packs of chicken; drumsticks, thighs, and breast. However, Paul and his mother always used a large-ish pack of thighs, bone-in and skin on. Really, you can use whatever you want, but you do need the skin as it provides the fat that keeps the chicken tender. My only added advice here is to adjust the amounts of liquids to make sure that you have enough to cover, or nearly cover, the chicken. In this particular instance, I chose a pack of 10 thighs and found that I needed to double the recipe in order to have enough liquid in the pot.

In a large pot, I added 2 cups of water, one-half cup of soy sauce, one cup of vinegar, two or three whole bay leaves, black pepper, and half a bulb of garlic, sliced. Then, I added the chicken and covered the pot. After about an hour and quick phone call to Paul’s mom for moral support(!), I needed to reduce the amount of liquid. So, I uncovered the pot and let it cook for another hour until the liquid was reduced by about three-fourths. Just use low to medium heat settings and adjust as needed based on the amount of time you have.

***

Ok, let’s take a little time-out to have a serious talk about rice. That’s right. Rice. For my readers in the American south, I know I am opening a can of worms here. (What other readers are there you ask? Well, at last count, the little blog that could is being read in 47 countries around the world. Eeek!)

Rice culture in the American south, specifically in the Carolinas, has a long, long history, and southern households and their cooks have developed very specific habits and methods, to a nearly religious level, around cooking, serving, and eating rice. In fact, many southern brides receive the traditional gift of a rice spoon as a wedding gift.

The rice historically grown in the Carolinas was a long-grain, non-aromatic, white rice. Over the years, my family has grown more fond of the aromatic rices like jasmine and basmati.

Now, there are many questions that can immediately tell us a lot about a person based on their response, questions that place people in categories or camps. Which direction the toilet paper roll faces, for example, is one of those questions. I am not even going to weigh in on that one for fear of losing readers!

But the rice question is this, “How do you cook rice?” The two camps are as follows:  steamed or boiled. Each camp is full of devotees. I have never in my life heard someone say, “Either way. It doesn’t matter” because, well, it most certainly does matter. These two versions of rice are hardly even comparable!

The only way to cook rice is in pot. Judge me as you wish.

Two cups of water to one cup of rice, a thick pad of butter, and 10 minutes covered on low to medium-low heat makes the perfect pot of rice. Every time. Finesse points include bringing it to a hard boil just before turning down the heat and covering, and do not, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, do not lift the lid. Once it is covered, you must not uncover until it is finished. In our household, getting a little too close to the pot would result in a sharp rebuke, “Don’t open the lid!” You might even get a light slap on the hand if it looked like you might be considering lifting the lid. I’m not kidding. When finished, the rice should be forked before serving.

***

Asparagus is a perennial that grows really well in the south. A well-tended bed will produce for many years. It grows like a weed as we say. I have even seen it growing wild in roadside ditches down country lanes bordering long forgotten homesteads and farms. We like it lightly steamed so that it retains its crunch and nutty, earthy flavor. A vegetable basket in a large pot over medium-high heat works well. Add water until it is even with the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and start a five minute timer once you see the first curls of steam rising. Then, remove from heat and serve immediately.

***

Pear salad. Another icon at our family’s dinner table. Begin with a couple of outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce as the base. Add a half of a pear, a dollop of mayonnaise, a maraschino cherry, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. I don’t know the origins of this little dish nor have I ever had the inclination to ask. I almost prefer to think of it as uniquely ours. It is just so dear and precious to me. It really is delightful. Trust me.

However, if you choose to use anything other than Duke’s mayonnaise, I am not responsible for the outcome.

***

And finally for dessert…We were celebrating a birthday so I made a cake, honey-bun cake. We make this cake in a casserole dish, and it is hilariously and lovingly known in our family as buh-donka-donk cake (because if you are not careful, it will give you a buh-donka-donk butt!).

First, mix one box of yellow cake mix, 8 ounces of sour cream, three-fourths cup of oil, four eggs, and one-half cup of sugar until all ingredients are moist, about two minutes at a medium speed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Combine one cup of light brown sugar, one-half cup of raisins, and two teaspoons of cinnamon and lightly swirl mixture into the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. While the cake is still warm, pour a mixture of one cup of powdered sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla over the cake.

Paul made this cake for us many times. He got the recipe years ago from one of our finest friends who got the recipe from his good friend and neighbor. Connection. Making and sharing these recipes and food keeps us connected, physically and in spirit.

As we enjoyed the meal, we talked about all the people we loved who were connected with the recipes and the food. We smiled and laughed remembering them, the time we shared with them, who they were, and the impact they had on our lives and us on theirs. I am so grateful for everything Paul and I shared and particularly grateful that Paul left me such a beautiful (culinary) legacy of love!

This. This is what I love about food, recipes, and sharing meals with others. It’s a way to remember and honor the lives of those we love. It’s an active, living memorial.

Food + memories = joy, Malia

Sunday Dinner #1

Let’s get cooking! This is the first in series of posts that will feature meals that my late husband made for his family and friends throughout our lives together. He was a great cook and really enjoyed it. I also think it was his way of providing for us. It was part of his love-language, and oh, boy, did we feel loved!

My reasons for this adventure in cooking are threefold.

First, it’s a growth goal for me on two fronts. For one, it’s a sort of last hold-out in terms of what daily life looks like without Paul. I have really resisted cooking for myself and others because it is a daily life-task that wholly belonged to Paul. Stepping into a role that was so completely his domain would be full acknowledgement of his absence and a major milestone in my grieving and healing process. Also, we’re moving into a new season of family life with the birth of my second niece, the marriage of my son, and the anticipation of grandchildren in years to come. Our little family is growing! I want to cook for myself and my growing family. I want to share big family meals together, cherish our memories of Paul, and make some new memories of our own.

Second, it’s a way to memorialize Paul and preserve a beautiful aspect of our family life for future generations. Each meal has memories and love attached them; the food, the smell, the taste, the table-scape, the dishes. Food and love, passed around the table.

Finally, it’s therapeutic. Cooking has benefits all its own, the ability to heal a broken heart. A New York Times article from many years back, “Cooking is therapy:  Making meals helps reduce stress, heal a broken heart, among other benefits”, aptly describes the many benefits of spending time in the kitchen.

Now, I am not pretending for a second that any of these meals are gourmet or as healthy as they could be. They are not going to cure your psoriasis or lower your blood pressure. I am simply serving up memories for myself and my family, home-cooked goodness that satisfies and soothes and honors the person we loved. It’s home-cooked healing, comfort for a grieving heart.

For this particular Sunday Dinner, I prepared red rice with pork chops, green peas, cinna-minny apple sauce, biscuits, and cheesecake with a blueberry sauce for dessert. I prepared the meal just like Paul. I did it the same way I watched him do it hundreds of times over so many years. Going through his motions in making the meal was really comforting to me. I felt like I was close to him, like I was spending time with him again, and like I was preserving a part of who he was and what he meant to us.

***

First, I browned the pork chops in a bit of oil on medium-high heat. Next, I removed the pork chops and set them aside. Then, I added stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, a cup and a half of water, and one cup of rice. Finally, I placed the pork chops back in the pan, covered it, and let it cook on medium-low for about 30 minutes. A frequent variation for us was to use kielbasa style sausage in place of pork chops.

Side dishes included green peas, apple sauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and biscuits.

I baked a cheesecake for dessert. Cheesecake was not in Paul’s repertoire, but I wanted to include it because it’s a recipe that a member of my GriefShare group gave me. Each time I bake it, I remember and honor the members of my GriefShare group, how much we shared and supported each other, and the loving care I experienced with them at a time when I was really vulnerable.

***

This cheese cake is so easy! Crust is optional. You can grease/butter the pan, and sprinkle it with crushed graham crackers for a light crust.

For the filling, simply mix together two and one-quarter pounds of cream cheese, one and one-third cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 4 eggs.

Bake at 200 degrees for three and one-half hours. No need for a water bath. Give it the ol’ jiggle test before you remove it from the oven. Let it cool. Then, place in the refrigerator overnight or at least for several hours.

For this cake, I made a blueberry sauce, but it could be topped with any fruit. I have used whole, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries in the past. The blueberry sauce was quick and easy. I heated two cups of blueberries, half a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and half a cup of sugar over medium heat until bubbly. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and added it to the blueberries. The cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce. Finish by stirring in one-half teaspoon of vanilla.

Honestly, this first cooking adventure was so much fun! I found both joy and satisfaction in cooking for my family.

***

In other news, it seems that everyone has a New Year’s post of one kind or another, but this is not my new year. My new year begins the day after the anniversary of Paul’s passing, March 18. However, my thoughts are already wandering in that direction, anticipating the marking of the second year without Paul, and, oh goodness, acknowledging new possibilities. I have no idea what that looks like, but I know I have grown tremendously and more than ever I am looking forward. Just that. Looking forward.

My friends, healing is the new grieving, Malia

Five Gold Rings

This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?

Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.

Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.

But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.

This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.

I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.

***

I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.

So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.

Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.

I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.

One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”

Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.

I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.

On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?

Now would be a good time to grab a snack.

Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.

A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.

Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?

Go get another snack.

What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.

I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!

To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.

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The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language.  Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”

And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”

Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.

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2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

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As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.

Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, Malia