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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

I’m back!

Ok, so, truth be told, I’ve been back for several days, but, you know, life!

From The Hymnal 1982, #398 I sing the almighty power of God, v 3, “….while all the borrows life from thee is ever in thy care, and everywhere that I could be, thou, God, art present there.”

My trip to the Dominican Republic was amazing! There were less hiccups on this trip than on my Camino adventure, and I was a much more confident traveler than I was the last time although I will confess to a little travel anxiety at the start. For me, that presents itself in the form of irrational worries like a sudden sense of panic that I selected the wrong airport when making my reservations online. Did I get the airport code right? Am I accidentally flying to the wrong country? I better double check. Did allow enough time for my connection? I better call the help line and ask. Where’s my passport? Did I remember to pack this, that, and the other?? Did I put my medicine in my carry on? Where’s my phone? Did I lock the car?

I left my home at 3:30am and boarded a flight to Miami at about 5:30am. I easily made my connection in Miami (traveling win!) and flew into Santo Domingo, the capital city, at about 11:00am and was greeted with……ugh, a looonnggg line to get through immigration. I was frustrated. I was anxiously texting my friend, Ada, keeping her updated on the progress of what would become my hour-and-a-half long wait to get my passport stamped. Being who she is, she texted, “Ok relax”. This is one of the many reasons I love her. Despite the short time we have known each other, she totally gets me and knows what I need to hear. Those two little words delivered with love and compassion made all the difference. I suddenly felt like I could wait in that line forever, and it would somehow be ok. Thank you, Jesus, for the blessing of these friends in my life!

By the way, flying into Miami is always a treat as that area of the country never seems to disappoint in the cloud department. The early morning departure provided me with a literal bird’s eye view of the sunrise, and, wow, was it spectacular. I was like a giddy kid with my nose pressed against the window. It’s like a cotton candy jungle up there with beautiful, spun filaments and fluffy mounds of pink and blue everywhere. When the sun begins to work its magic, those clouds glow like live embers in a smoldering campfire followed by whole fields of clouds rolling and advancing like thick floes of lava. It is quite the show!

After finally getting through immigration, Ada picked me up and whisked me off to a beautiful lunch overlooking the ocean at Boca Marina Restaurant. The sound of the water, the warm ocean breeze, and the expansive view were just what I needed after the cramped airplane and pressing crowd of the immigration line.

In the evening, we met our other friends at Parque Colon (Columbus Park), home of the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, in the Colonial Zone. The Colonial Zone is the historic, colonial district of the city. It is filled with shops, restaurants, historic buildings, and plazas where people meet to walk and talk, drink and dine, smile and laugh, and spend time together. The Dominican people are truly beautiful. A cross-cultural recipe of Spanish, African, and indigenous peoples shines in their faces. The street life is vibrant; rich with color and the smell of delicious foods, local produce, and the sound of merenque on every corner accompanied by crowds of people listening and spontaneously dancing in the plazas and along the sidewalks. It is glorious!

The next morning we set off for the mountains and countryside. Along the way, we stopped at a fantastic café, Miguelina’s Panaderia y Reposteria. They make fresh the most delicious breads and sweets, coffee, and fruit smoothies. From there, we made our way to Alta Vista Restaurant. We traveled by car to get there, but there is the option to arrive by helicopter from nearby locales. The view and the food were amazing as was the company. Next, we drove to a high mountain reservoir, Tavera Dam, where we boarded a boat for a day on the water with thanks to Ada’s brother, Ramon. In the late afternoon, we pulled up to a lakeside restaurant, La Presa de Taveras, serving the local catch. It was a truly beautiful day!

A long walk around the city the next morning before boarding the plane made my experience complete. It was a quick trip, but my Camino family and I made the most of it by seeing the sites and staying focused on the most important thing which was having time to enjoy each other’s company and give thanks that God brought us all together is this way.

***

Where’s the beef, ahem, I meant, grief?!

….to quote a fast food restaurant’s famous ad campaign from the 1980s. It went on to become a catchphrase implying where the substance or meaning is in a particular event or idea.

Well, the grief, my friends, is where it’s always at, crouching on coiled limbs in my heart, in my soul. The sadness still creeps in or pounces when I least expect it. I am still caught off guard by thoughts of sharing experiences with Paul. I am still uneasy without him by my side in so many situations, but right alongside that grief is gratitude and growth. I am so thankful for all that I have and all that I am and all that I am becoming.

I find myself becoming less and less interested in happiness. It never lasts. It’s bought, sold, and traded like a commodity. I am interested only in joy. Joy is eternal, and, along with gratitude, is the only counterbalance to grief and suffering. Joy happens in the small, quiet moments among friends and family and strangers when people connect. Joy happens when you’re dancing on a street corner or when your nose is pressed to a window watching the sunrise or when taking a long, deep breath of the ocean breeze. Joy is born out of contentment with all that life encompasses….birth, death, sadness, happiness, failure, success, fear, anger, acceptance, rejection. I am learning that joy can be present in the midst of it all if I approach life with gratitude and a desire to grow.

I am so completely thankful for Ada. God truly placed her in my life to encourage me to continue to learn and grow. She inspires me in all the best ways. For Ada, love is an action word. She shows me through her generous spirit how to cultivate and maintain connections. Ada inspires me to be more connected, more generous, to be more.

I love you all, Malia

The Camino – Day Six

Melide to Arzua, 10 miles

Today, was much better. My friends from the Dominican Republic , Ada and Jesus, reached out to me this morning wanting me to walk with them today. I gladly agreed, and we met on the Camino after breakfast. Ahhhh, the joy of friendship and connection with others! It is, indeed, a gift from our maker that we are designed to be social in whatever style suits our individual personalities.

I spent much of the day, too, thinking about my precious friends and family back at home, thanking God for the gift of them in my life. Before I left, they gave me a little remembrance book to bring with me. It is filled with their pictures, thoughts, and best wishes for my trip. I am so grateful for the way they love me!

The weather was so much better today, a little cooler, but plenty of sunshine for walking through undulating, wooded hillsides and river valleys.

It was also the shortest day, only 13 km. We arrived in the next city in the early afternoon with enough time for a long lunch of hot, fresh paella, local wine, and the best yogurt parfait I’ve ever had. This region is known for its dairy products. In addition, for the first time since arriving, I experienced the Siesta. In the middle of the day, most shops close. People go home for lunch and a nap. I indulged. I slept an hour and a half. I woke at about 5:30 and went straight to the pharmacy for more foot repair. Then, I enjoyed a nice stroll around the city center where I met and talked with a lovely couple from England. We chatted over gelato, sharing our Camino stories and said we hoped to see each other again on the way.

I was reminded today that God designed us to be social, but he also designed us for rest and to enjoy His creation, food, people, and places.

Two more walking days, and one travel day to go. Both walking days will be about 20 km each day. I’ll arrive at Santiago de Compostela on Thursday, and visit the tomb of Saint James. It’s also Maundy Thursday, the day in Holy Week that we recall Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet. That Jesus would humble himself in that manner was incomprehensible, but it is the ultimate model for friendship. The disciples were his followers, his companions, his friends. He loved them and wanted to show them what true love looks like in action. He was setting an example for both our actions and our attitude toward one another. Be tender. Be humble. Take care of your friends. Speak, Lord. I’m listening.

Love to all, Malia

“Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

I have written a lot about the importance of connections. Connecting with others has perhaps been the area of greatest personal growth for me during the grieving process. Paul knew it would be. The title of this post is literally one of the last coherent thoughts he was able to share with me. He knew my ability to “make some friends” would be critical. It’s not that I was completely friendless, but for me, my family was not just enough, they were my everything, my all-in-all. I didn’t feel like I needed more.

I.was.wrong.

I have worked hard to deepen current friendships and cultivate new connections, and it has made all the difference. Cultivate is exactly the right word here. Like a gardener cultivates flowers, growing a friendship takes time, work, attention, and the nourishment of emotional sunshine. I am learning how to do that because my connections, my friends, are teaching me. I have the most amazing group of what I call support sisters. They have taught me and are still teaching me how to be a friend. They show me every day with love, support, laughter, and tears, the sad kind and the happy kind. They are the real-deal steel magnolias. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about making and keeping friends.

Reach out

Ask for and offer help. Easier said than done. I know. I am the queen of “I can do it faster and better if I just do it myself.” Not true. What people really mean when they say something like this is that it takes less of their own energy to engage others in the completion of a task. And while that part may be true, it is, at the same time, a loss. The contributions of others have enormous value both to the outcome and the emotional well-being of those engaged in the process.

Be present

If you are invited, go. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is something that necessarily appeals to you personally. That’s not the point. Go, and enjoy being together.

Support their efforts

Whatever they are into, support it with time, energy, and positive contributions. Be their cheerleader!

Use multiple ways to communicate

Social media has many drawbacks, but it can be really useful for staying in touch. If you are an introvert (like me) and there is a limit on the number of face-to-face conversations you can have each day, use other ways to reach out, communicate, and support. Phone calls, Facebook, texting, Marco Polo, Instagram, Snapchat….the list goes on and on. Snapchat’s tag line is, “The fastest way to share a moment!” It’s pure marketing genius because it’s true. Making and maintaining connections is as much about sharing the little moments as it is about being there for the big ones.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, the rest of this post will be worth a million.

The women in these photos have been my rock. They have cried with me and laughed with me. They have been with me to mourn and to celebrate. I could not get through this journey without them, and I am so grateful! I am still learning about friendship. I am sure there are lots of ways that I fall short, but I am growing. Thanks to them. They are still teaching me every day. My hope and prayer is that I am able to return even a small portion of what they have given me.

Much love to all my sisters, Malia