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

Why ‘don’t look back’ is the worst advice ever: The power of reflection to propel us forward.

Don’t look back.

Have you ever received that advice? I think a lot of times it’s given in the context of walking away from a painful situation as in a messy divorce or a crappy job, but what I’ve learned is that nothing we experience in life is either all good or all bad. It’s just a question of what we take from it as we’re moving forward.

I have lately had the chance to spend time walking, both literally and figuratively, down memory lane. I visited with a life-long friend and reminisced about my childhood. I reconnected with someone who I started my career with over 25 years ago. And, now, the holidays are upon us. They always make me wistful, thinking of Thanksgivings and Christmases past. In other words, I’ve done a lot of looking back. In a way, it has been like taking a tour of my life to this point.

I also returned to the city of my birth and located the home my parents lived in when I was born. I used a stack of old photos that my parents took in the late 60s and early 70s as my guide. I returned to those places and imagined what it must have been like for my parents, newly married, far away from their homes and families, and welcoming a baby (me!) into their lives. I could feel the love, the love they had for each other and the love they had for me. It was like looking into a crystal ball and seeing myself in the past. It was quite the experience!

Reflection is a key element of growth and moving forward. For me, periods of intense, long-view reflection almost always precede the beginning of a new phase, the next chapter. Taking time to look back is what actually allows me to cross the existential boundary between what was and what will be. It is good to look back even if some of it producing pangs of discomfort, pain, or even embarrassment. It’s important to acknowledge all of our phases and stages of development as being part and parcel of who we are today. It’s all valid. It’s all worthy. Because all of it has contributed to the person I am today and the person I am going to be when I wake up tomorrow.

***

I’ve been traveling again. This time to the south pacific, Oahu, Hawai’i. While there, I had the opportunity to hike the Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail. The All Trails app grades it as “hard”, and I agree! A 1,600 foot ascent over 2.5 miles following a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides, a shorter distance but a much more difficult incline than my Camino experience. However, the internal, emotional experience was quite similar. There were moments when I wanted to stop. Several sections were so vertical, and the trail in such poor condition due to recent rain, that ropes were needed to safely climb higher towards the summit.

What kept me going? Taking time to stop and take in the view, taking time to reflect on how far I had come and using that as inspiration to carry on. And, oh my, was it worth it. The further I trekked, the higher I climbed, the better the view. The perspective changed from each vantage point. With the completion of each new (and difficult) section, I could see more and more of the rich landscape surrounding me.

The further I went the more difficult the trail became but the greater the reward when I stopped to look back, and, thank goodness, I did. Oh, what I would’ve missed if I didn’t! The summit was but a moment. The real joy in this journey was in the periods of rest and reflection. This. This is life. Stopping periodically to look back, to reflect on how far we’ve come, is good. It is healthy. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it can be used to propel us forward.

My advice? Take time to reflect…and carry on, Malia

Happy Holidays!

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a holiday. That’s why I’m writing about it now. The holidays have been so fraught with emotion for me that I’m not capable of effectively writing about them in the moment.

I grew up near the ocean. It was always there in the background, either lapping or roaring. That’s how grief is, too. Always there. In the background. An ocean of grief, either lapping or roaring. If grief comes in waves, then the holidays are most certainly rip currents. I remember being taught from a very early age what to do if I was ever caught in a rip current. A rip current is a swift, narrow flow of water moving perpendicular to and away from the beach. It can literally take you out to sea, away from the stability of the shore. You may suddenly find yourself slapped about by a tumult of waves, bobbing up and down, coming up for a gasp of air but just as quickly pulled back down. With eyes squenched shut and cheeks taut with breath held, you’re catching only glimpses of the shoreline with each bob and weave. Everyone’s first instinct is to try to swim back to land. Everyone’s first instinct is wrong. In so many cases, that decision is fatal. If you struggle, fight against it, you might die of exhaustion. The key is not to struggle. You can do one of two things. You can change direction and swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, or you can just let it carry you until it has lost its power so that you can calmly make your way back to the beach. I think it’s good practice for grieving through the holidays, too. Change direction, or ride it out. I also think there should be grief signal flags like maritime signal flags. The holidays: storm warnings ahead, dangerous conditions. My holiday ship would be flying the delta flag, a field of blue with a yellow belt above and below it, signaling, “Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.”

The first holiday that came up on the calendar after Paul died was Easter. As a Christian, there is no other holiday with greater meaning or comfort, and no greater reason for hope than this one, but at the time, I was numb to all of that. In fact, that first Easter Sunday after Paul died, I didn’t even go to church. I had been at the hospital all night with Paul’s family. His mother had a very mild, cardiac event and was hospitalized overnight. Likewise, I did not go to church on Easter Sunday this year either. Instead, I was just stepping off a plane from my Camino experience in Spain. So, Easter Sunday at church without Paul sitting beside me is still an unknown experience. Yay, there’s that to look forward to.

The next major holiday on the calendar was Thanksgiving. That one was blessedly normal. Honestly, I didn’t even give it a second thought. Why? I was anxiously anticipating our wedding anniversary and Christmas which nearly coincide with each other. I was already so focused on how I was going to manage those holidays that Thanksgiving was little more than a speed bump in the road. So, you might be thinking that I did well to get through Thanksgiving relatively unscathed, and it’s true. I did. But Thanksgiving, filled with family, quieter and less commercialized than Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday. So, while I did indeed get through it, I didn’t enjoy it, and that was hard, not enjoying my favorite holiday.

Paul and I were married 11 days before Christmas. It was a simple, lovely wedding. It was an unseasonably warm, 72 degrees, that day. The morning was overcast with a sprinkling of rain, but by the time I was walking down the aisle at two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was out and it was a spectacular, late fall, Lowcountry day. I loved our Christmas time wedding. It’s such a festive time of year anyway. There is so much to celebrate. It’s when the church celebrates the birth of Christ, and the church’s celebratory mood is on full display, hung with greenery and garlands punctuated by the brilliant red of holly berries and poinsettias. We, in turn, were celebrating the birth of our marriage and were looking forward to building a life together with the same jubilance and excitement of children in anticipation of Christmas morning.

I knew our first anniversary without him was going to be difficult, and I really tried to get out of the rip current of emotion rushing toward me, threatening to sweep me away, by swimming in a different direction. I, in fact, went backward in order to go forward. I knew I had to go back to where we started. I knew I needed to move forward from a place of strength. In a way, I was revisiting our life, going on a tour of a place and time that created what we knew as us. Reflecting on it now, it turned out to be a critical, turning point in my healing process.

Paul and I met at a local, historic plantation. It’s where we got to know each other. We spent a lot of time there in the beginning of our relationship, walked the garden paths, talked about the flowers, trees, and history, smiled and laughed and shared ourselves, our stories.

So, I planned to take the day off from work and spend our anniversary there. Just me and Paul and our memories. However, it was not the spectacular late fall, Lowcountry day that our wedding day was. It was reasonably warm, but it was raining, a constant slow dripping all day long. I went anyway, umbrella in hand and rain boots on my feet. Amazingly, the plantation and gardens had been transformed by the rain. It made the whole experience other-worldly as if I had stepped through a portal in time and space.

In the rain soaked garden, the light looked different, the greens of the leaves and trees were clearer and sharper in contrast to the mossy grays and muted, tawny, December browns of the rushes and marsh grasses. There was no breeze. It was so quiet. The only movement was that of birds taking full advantage of the opportunity to bathe and preen, and dine on a smorgasbord of stranded insects.

Only the puddles registered my steps as I strode through pathways crowded with the heavy water logged limbs of blooming camellias. The light coating of water like slip glaze on pottery had given the flowers a pearl-ized, translucent quality casting them in a sheen, a glow.

I didn’t see a single other visitor to the gardens that entire day. You might think that felt lonely, but it didn’t. I felt very close to Paul, and enveloped in His creation as I was, I felt very close to God, too. As I stepped out from a pathway to a point where I could see across the rice fields and river beyond, I was greeted with the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”. I had not heard or thought about this hymn in years, but it was with me all day. God, in His mercy, was singing over me.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such gracious judgement given.

There is plentiful redemption
through the blood that Christ has shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be illumined,
by the glory of the Lord.

(Frederick William Faber, 1862)

I had some of Paul’s ashes with me. I had no plans for when or where I might let them go. I just walked and remembered and waited for the moment because I knew it would come. And it did. I rounded a hedge row on to a rise that overlooked the river. The rain had slowed to a mist, and as I swept my arm and hand across my body to launch Paul’s ashes heavenward, a breeze caught him and carried him out over the marshes and river to be forever part of the landscape that he cherished and that shaped the early foundation of our relationship.

The next 11 days leading up to Christmas produced a lot of anxiety. For one thing, I had to do the Christmas shopping by myself. Paul and I always did this together. I spent a Saturday going from store to store with crying fits in the car in between. It was miserable. In contrast to my experience revisiting the place where we met, I didn’t feel close to Paul at all. In fact, I felt as far away from him as I could possibly be, but I was riding it out. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I opted, again, to swim in a different direction. Good move.

I hosted family dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. This included Paul’s family and my family. It also, blessedly, turned out to include a friend from my work family. She was alone for the holidays. Her husband needed to be with his ailing parents, her grown children were splitting the holidays between their families and the families of their respective significant others and so she was by herself on Christmas Eve. I saw a little of myself in that situation and reached out to her to come join our family for Christmas Eve dinner and was so glad I did. It was wonderful to have her there. We got in the kitchen and cooked together and talked and laughed and smiled. She fit right in with our crazy, blended family, and it was good.

On Christmas Day, my son and I got up and opened presents. We visited with Paul’s parents. The morning was quiet and peaceful. The sadness was there, but I just looked it right in the face and accepted it. Then, we joined some other family members and friends to cook and serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House. Ronald McDonald House Charities provide lodging, resources, and support to families of sick children who are receiving treatment far from their homes. It’s a beautiful thing, and it provided me with both distraction from my own feelings and a necessary perspective on my grief and the grief of others.

This past Father’s Day was our second without Paul. It was tough. I don’t really remember the first one being that hard, and I thought that was strange. It seems like all of the firsts would be more difficult, but here’s why I think that’s not actually the reality of it. During that first year, a holiday was no different from any other day because they all sucked. Every day was a difficult day, holiday or not. But then, somewhere along the way, everything gradually starts getting better, and the bad days start to stand out from the other days more so than they did before. Suddenly, holidays become like land mines, like islands of grief in an otherwise relatively calm, navigable sea.

There is a lot of really good advice out there about how to survive the holidays when you are grieving. And you can certainly do just that. You can survive the holidays. But you can also use the holidays as an opportunity to grieve, grow, and heal. I think I did a little of both.

Malia

It’s the little things.

In loss, there is pain. It’s debilitating. The good news is that the worst of it is temporary. It’s what remains after the worst-of-it that takes real work.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 comforts us not to grieve as those who have no hope. We are encouraged to carry on despite the heartache, despite the hurt and despair. We.have.hope. And His name is Jesus. My family is the bedrock of my human existence, my sisters and brothers in Christ love and support me spiritually, my friends and colleagues are my ballasts, but the personal friend I have in Jesus is what carries me through each day. He is hope. He is why I don’t give up.

It’s been a little more than a year since Paul died, and I am only recently starting to watch TV again. I know how strange and silly that must sound, but it was about 10 months before I could even sit on the couch let alone watch a show. Likewise, NPR was a staple in our cars for decades. We enjoyed the news and game shows and especially Prairie Home Companion. I walked out of the hospital the day Paul died, got into my car, and immediately changed the radio to a local rock station because I could not bear to listen to NPR, and I haven’t listened to it since. I do miss it, but I just can’t.

Those are just some of the little things I couldn’t or still can’t do. There are also things I won’t do. The grocery store, as evidenced by the recently posted picture of my very empty and very embarrassing refrigerator, is something I won’t do…along with cooking. Paul loved to cook. It was his domain throughout our marriage. It was a contribution to our family life in which he took great pride.

In some ways, I am still operating under the conditions of my former life. I just leave things around the house to be done. I don’t know who in the world I think is going to do them or if I’m waiting for Paul to come back and pick up where he left off. It’s the madness of grief. I can do laundry, wash dishes, and pay bills like a champ, but that’s because those were the tasks that previously belonged to me anyway. It was these little divisions of labor that evolved within our relationship over time that made our household work. These little things are really the last hold-outs of my former life perhaps because they are the most deeply embedded in my day-to-day living. The grocery store and cooking were exclusively Paul’s tasks. I think to myself, “I shouldn’t have to do this. I won’t do it. That’s Paul’s job.” There is an angry, stubborn, rebelliousness to it. I don’t know how long it will take me to accept this new reality and really take ownership of these tasks, but I am indignant and not in a hurry.

It’s been about a month now since my return from the Camino, and the adjustment issues are lingering. Initially, it had a lot to do with the time change, but it’s been so enduring that it can’t just be that. I think it’s me. I think I’m different. I think I am fundamentally different. The pace and rhythm of my daily walks on the Camino have filtered into the pace of my life.

I am continuously making connections between my daily routine and my Camino experience, faster here, slower there, the need for careful steps, what it’s like when the day is smooth or rough, connecting to others, when to dig deep, to finish strong, to stop and rest, to be quiet, to observe, to look for signs. It’s all here in my daily life. On the Camino, I had to physically adjust to many of these things.  In my daily life, I am making the connection to adjusting mentally and spiritually. It continues to be a journey and a profoundly interesting experience to witness in myself.

We’ve also had some really good things happening lately. My son has graduated from college, gotten engaged, and been accepted to graduate school. He and his fiancé have moved to the same city that I live in, and I am so excited to have them close by. My Camino experience was everything I hoped it would be and more, and I have recently earned a new, exciting and challenging position at work that I am very happy about. We’ve had a lot to smile about and celebrate which is wonderful, welcome, and certainly a change from the year that has preceded it. Some folks even say, “After the year y’all have had, you deserve it”, or “Y’all were due some good news!” or “God owed it to you after what y’all have been through.” When I hear sentiments like this, I smile politely most of the time because I know that people love us and mean well and are genuinely happy for us, and I am so grateful. But here, in this post, I feel like I need to set the record straight. We have done nothing to deserve anything. No one, least of all the Lord God we serve, owes us anything. It is, in fact, we who owe Him everything as much today, or even more so, as on the day we took our first breath and even on the day Paul took his last breath. We don’t deserve it……but by God’s grace, Paul and I had thirty years together. We were able to learn and grow from each other. We were gifted with the stewardship of another one of God’s children, our son. We had the opportunity to seek forgiveness from one another when we fell short of the promises we made each other. There’s no way to earn God’s favor. Faith, no matter how great, does not spare us from adversity. You see, both plenty and adversity, are worthy of our gratitude to God. I seek only to Glorify God and use my experience as an opportunity to tell others that any strength and grace of which I am possessed are not mine but His. It is a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God comforts me, and, for me, true healing means that after all the suffering and pain, we will say, “The Lord has been good to me.”

Now, I am not naïve. I know that this stance is counter-cultural. In American society, the denial of self comes with a sad sort of pity for a person who is unwilling or incapable of tooting their own horn. Some may even say it is anti-intellectual whatever that means. I take that back. Let’s be clear about what that means. That sentiment comes from folks who are trying to be socially correct and call other people dumb or backwards in the same breath. Either that or it’s an attempt to pigeonhole other people into a place where they are perceived as valuing the spirit over intellect, but I reject the either-or model and embrace the both-and model. I am both intellectual and spiritual. I value intellectual approaches to problem solving and seek the wisdom of the Spirit, and I think there is plenty of evidence in this blog to support that assertion.

I’m going to leave you with Romans 5:1-5 which really could be a sort of road map to my experience, my theme song if you will. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy spirit who has been given to us.”

But by God’s grace, I am standing! Malia