Warrior VI: The Surrender

 

Today I just want to pull on yoga pants and eat cookies.

I don’t feel particularly strong or faithful or inspired. I don’t want to walk or meditate or drink beet juice. My inner Warrior surrendered and crawled into a cave, leaving me at my desk with a tepid cup of coffee, a growing task list and a small but eerily still lizard on the hardwood floor. His eyes are open, but he doesn’t flinch when the dog gallops over his head.

Some days are like this.

I inhale and exhale and let my vision go blurry. I accept the fact that I’m not going to accomplish a single item on the dreaded list until I give permission to nurture my downcast little girl self. I leave the mess, and I curl up in an oversized chair with a book I have no intention of reading in my lap. I wrap a soft, brown blanket around my shoulders, I let my eyelids close, and I just sit.

I sit for a while, enjoying sitting. When I get up, I hunt around the pantry for cookies. I eat one or two. Or ten. Then I notice the lizard has gone. I am relieved that there is no evidence to suggest that either the dog or the cat is implicated is his disappearance.

I return to my list. I add “Eat cookies” to my list and check it off. That might be all I accomplish today. Or maybe, like the lizard, I will find my way to the next thing. You never know.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And cookies.

World Travelers

It took me a while to choose the artwork for my office. For several months, I stared at the blank, white wall, wondering what might belong in that place. There’s something appealing to me about the freshly painted walls, free from scuff marks, dings and imperfections. The open space invokes excitement and mystery. The wall calls out to be adorned. It is full of potential, but the process is also intimidating. And expensive. Art is risky. The piece should have an appropriate message and be the right colors. I’m going to spend a lot of hours sitting across the desk from this art. What if I don’t like it as much as I thought I would? I can’t just try it on for size, and I will not be allowed to return it. I cannot afford to change it out like fashion, assuming the latest trend in hemlines with each season. It’s a commitment. I dared not rush into this decision impulsively. I spent hours clicking on various paintings and photographs, some original art, some prints, trying to picture the small image on the screen taking up residence over several square feet of wall space. After some time, I found the perfect piece, but then it almost didn’t arrive.

My best friend from college lives in New York City. Louise grew up in Wichita, we met in Houston, and now we live on opposite coasts of the country. Occasionally, I feel the physical distance between the two of us like a vast Midwestern cornfield, but more often than not, I feel close and connected. I know what would make her laugh and what (or who) would irritate her. We occasionally speak live on the phone, but we exchange text messages almost daily. For the entire first year after Sam’s death, she sent me an encouraging email message every morning and every evening. Every single day. For an entire year. She never missed. She was going through a protracted, contentious and expensive divorce at the time, but she remained present with her support and her humor. When she met my Tim for the first time, she took me aside and warned me, That man’s in love with you.

A client mentioned a website that features artists from all over the world and suggested that I might find a suitable piece there. I did. I felt drawn to it almost immediately, an oil painting entitled “Riverside” by an artist from Ghana. It conveys a moment of peace in the midst of what surely must be a difficult journey. I shared the picture with Louise for her blessing, and she loved it, too, as I knew she would. Somewhere between West Africa and the west coast of California, the painting went missing. UPS lost track of it. It vanished. The representative from the art website offered to give me a significant discount on another piece. I clicked and clicked to find a suitable replacement, but nothing fit. The wall stayed blank, no longer inviting but rather disappointed, resigned to waiting for the second-best option.

I ran my first (and so far only) half-marathon with Louise at my side. We trained on opposite coasts, comparing progress and injuries along the way. We shared a training schedule and smoothie recipes, and we encouraged each other when illness, weather and teenaged-boy-related incidentals interrupted our flow. After a few months, race day arrived, Louise flew to the west coast, and I drove up the coast to meet her. Together, we ran the 13.1 miles from the foothills to the beach, all the while motivating each other with anecdotes, insights and ‘atta girls. Every step after the 10-mile marker was a personal best for me. I had never run farther.

“Riverside” is mostly green and yellow, a tangle of trees so thick that the path the two women travel is obscured from the viewer. The river flows in the foreground, including reflections of the women in the moving water. They have come to fetch water, a task that probably takes up the majority of their day. In the painting, they have turned from the river’s banks, and they are heading back home to their village, each balancing a large water container on her head. The women appear tall and strong, almost regal, one with a blue headscarf and the other with red.

I also ran that one-and-only half-marathon with my husband Tim at my side. Flanked by my best friend and the love of my life, I have never been stronger or happier.

“Riverside” arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. The cylindrical package appeared travel-worn at the edges but otherwise intact. There were no unusual markings or labels to indicate where it might have been diverted or delayed along its path between Africa and North America. As I carefully unrolled the painted canvas, a small leaflet fell to the floor with a brief description of the piece, the name of the artist, and the tagline, “Every treasure has a story…”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe travels.

IMG_5216

Quintessential

I was so disappointed the last time I saw my dad. Not in him, but I had hoped that the flowers I had brought over just a few days earlier would last the week. Instead, the crystal vase on the nightstand next to his bed in the nursing facility was empty, the wilted flowers having been discarded, and the vase itself wiped clean.

My parents had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. We weren’t allowed to release dad from the convalescent home, not even for such a significant event, due to certain, labyrinthine insurance coverage rules. Instead, my mother and my sister and I brought the celebration to my father, an elegant luncheon in the gardens. It was an intimate affair including only our immediate family, but with careful attention to detail, table linens, flowers, my mother’s favorite ganache cake, and a few bottles of my father’s favorite drink, a sparkly and benign apple cider.

The flowers were particularly beautiful, mostly white with a few gold accents in honor of the day. The tightly packed roses, hydrangeas, dahlias and peonies brimmed over the top of the square vase. I had mentioned to the florist that it was a special occasion, and he assured me he would carefully select the flowers. I ordered two floral arrangements so that each of my parents would have one. After the luncheon, one of my sons wrapped one vase with a towel and nestled it inside a banker’s box, so it wouldn’t topple and bruise the petals or spill water in my mom’s car on her way home. Another of my sons brought my dad’s arrangement to his room.

My father was pleased with the flowers. His grandparents were florists, and he grew up working in the family’s shop, overtime on all the major holidays. He had an eye both for the quality of the flowers themselves and for the overall presentation. When he was courting my mother, he made her corsages himself. Every time I plop cut flowers straight into a vase, he carefully removes each one, cuts the stem to a specific length and artfully rearranges the display. I was delighted that the anniversary flowers met with his approval, and doubly disappointed when later they didn’t meet with mine. I had arrived, expecting the arrangement to bring cheer, but the clear vase now held only a few brittle lemon leaves that had been spray-painted gold. The sight of the empty vase left me a little blue.

I didn’t say anything to dad about the missing flowers. We had other crucial ground to cover in our conversation – the grandchildren and their summer activities, politics, religion, the space program, the timing of his return home. He was his usual joyful, exuberant self.

“Oh Charlotte!” he exclaimed. He remembered something he wanted to tell me, “All of the nurses have thoroughly enjoyed the flowers you brought!” He was radiant.

I cocked my head quizzically, thinking about the absent flowers. He explained, “Every time a nurse came in to take care of me, I offered her a flower from the arrangement and a piece of chocolate from the box of See’s your sister brought.” The missing flowers suddenly made perfect sense. Nothing would have brought my father more joy than to share those beautiful flowers, one by one, with every person who walked through his door. It was exactly how he lived his whole life.

I had every intention of bringing him more flowers the following week, this time prepared for him to give away each individual daisy or sunflower, but I didn’t get the chance. He was gone too soon.

In his characteristic way, he left me with a gift, a story. It is the story of a man who spent his life giving, a story of love, selflessness, joy and hope. My favorite kind of story.

And so, I share. Because after all, I am my father’s daughter.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And stories of love and joy.

Family Funeral

We arrive more or less in black,
Hats on sunny days,
Umbrellas in the rain.
This part is always the same: We smile and cry and embrace,
Reunited,
Genuinely happy to see each other.

We knew today would come,
She was nearly 90.
Sad,
But not tragic.
We miss her already,
Especially her laughter.
She was thoughtful,
Diligent,
Educated,
Opinionated,
A gift to her many students.
She was a loving wife and mother,
Generous,
Fiercely protective,
Turned a blind eye to her children’s glitches,
Like most moms I know.
Like me.

My son serves as a pallbearer,
A role his father would have fulfilled,
If he had lived so long.

The young man would stand shoulder to shoulder
With his dad,
Maybe even taller now.
The abuelas whisper to each other
loud enough
for all to hear,
“So handsome!”
“Those eyes! He looks like his father.”

The tias smile
With tears sparkling.
They glance at each other knowingly.

The boy doesn’t remember the tias and abuelas,
who have been there for him,
Since before he was born.
They attend bridal showers and weddings,
Baby showers and baptisms and birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
And funerals.
Always funerals.
His own father’s funeral.
He was too little to be a pallbearer then.

The tias and abuelas fretted and fawned.
They hoped and prayed.
They were there.
They always are.

They share joy and laughter and pour champagne,
They bear sorrow and grief
and prepare the condolence meal.
They lift spirits and hold hearts with steady hands.
They show up
donning Chanel and pearls,
or jeans and tennies.
Love takes many shapes.
They remember,
Even if he does not.

On those very dark days,
When Life disappoints
And it is hard to believe,
May he yet have faith in the aunties.
May he feel God’s bewildering love for him,
In the kiss prints of so many tias and abuelas
All over his cheeks.

Thoughts for My Grieving Son On Father’s Day

You were little.
A boy is not supposed to lose
his daddy so young.

I wish I could have protected you both.
Instead, I was left
holding the fragments of your broken heart
waiting
for you
to piece them back together.

And you have,
With love
Patience and diligence
Kindness and joy and faith
Intelligence and goodness and humility and character and humor and hope.

Shards remain.
Value them.
Notice
when anger inspires you to face injustice.
Let incredulity guide
initiative
and increase understanding.
Let hatred provoke
your actions toward peace.
Respect the resentment
that fuels your desire to change.
Just enough.
No more.

Listen to the voices in your heart
to sustain you,
heal you,
form you
hold you together.
You will recognize your father’s love
incorporated in you.
His presence
in your life,
strength,
stillness,
a gentle confidence,
resembling his hand on your shoulder.

Your tears stop,
not because you no longer care;
You simply no longer cry.
Your wholeness
intact
safe.

The tears return,
and when they do, do not be discouraged.
It does not mean that you have not healed,
they point
simply
to the depth of the loss
and the remarkable capacity of your broken heart.

Steadfast

My father isn’t perfect, but he thinks I am. Which occasionally produces incredible frustration and angst and is also a source of great comfort. Sometimes I feel as though my own father doesn’t see the whole of me, that he refuses to see the parts of me that are self-righteous, petty, disappointed or jealous. When I’m angry and wounded because of a real or perceived injustice, I want him to acknowledge how hostile and unfair the world is – or at least how I feel in that moment – but he simply doesn’t view life (or me) that way. He sees the glory and the victory. He’s positive and grateful. He’s generous and kind. It’s super annoying.

When work or life or parenting makes me feel small and inadequate, when challenges threaten to bring out my worst version of myself, I channel my inner teenager, stammering and stomping defiantly in front of him, daring him not to notice how enraged, afraid or venomous I am. He doesn’t. Look at my little girl, he smiles, isn’t she just so wonderful? It’s infuriating.

His approach leaves me with an untenable choice: dig in my heels and prove my own limitations, or rise above the trial and up to his expectations of me. I want to wallow in the mud and maybe even sling a little, but it won’t work. Trust me. The man is relentless with his love and approval.

The other night my husband is out of town, and I’m home alone with three of my sons, none of whom particularly want my attention. I am hoping to take at least one of them to dinner and a movie, but they all have other plans. Truth be told, only one of them has actual plans. The other two prefer no plans at all to an evening out with me, because of course no self-respecting teenager wants to be seen at Panera or Deadpool with his mother on a Friday night. They don’t want to order pizza and rent a movie either. Even the dog has abandoned me in favor of curling up with the stinky teenagers, and I am left with an aging and ill-tempered cat. Regrettably, the cat and I have more in common than I care to admit.

I decide to make a salad and pour a glass of wine and curl up with a book, which would normally make me happy, but I’m still in a funk and feeling sorry for myself. A black widow has taken up residence in our wine rack, and although my husband has seen her several times, she manages to scuttle away before he can exterminate her. She is a deft one. Absorbed as I am in self-pity, I start to imagine that if the murderous spider bites me, I could justify going to the hospital where at least somebody will care whether I live or die.

Instead, I call my dad. He drives me crazy with his optimism, and what I need more than anything right now to counteract my foul mood is a dose of my father’s rose-colored glasses. He does not disappoint. I tell him about the black widow. I despair of my parenting shortcomings. We joke about the fact that my children would readily acknowledge my flaws, perhaps even offer a dissertation on the subject. Our conversation covers the range from the inconsequential to catastrophic, which is to say that mostly we talked about the weather. He is the ideal antidote to my peevishness, spares me a costly trip to the hospital and restores peace to my evening. We laugh, and he suggests that I could use the material for my blog. Smiling, I hang up the phone and settle in with my book and my glass of wine. He may not love me perfectly, but my father loves me consistently.

By the end of the evening, one of the boys is in a state himself. His plans, or lack of plans, did not turn out as he had planned. He searches the house and finds me in my favorite chair, contentedly absorbed in my book, which I readily set aside to tend to his bruised and aching heart. We do not discuss the weather.

This parenting bit is not so easy. I cannot help but feel grateful for the reliability of this man who has loved me from before he met me. He demonstrates that love need not be flawless to be dependable. Our relationship survives despite our glitches and quirks. (I can hear him already: What glitches?) We manage to find a balance together.

My dad so rarely comments on the Su-shit that I don’t know whether or not he reads my blog regularly. I think I’ll print this one out and send it to him for Father’s Day with a handwritten note: Thanks, Dad. You’re wonderful.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And unwavering, imperfect love.

53 Minutes

Tuesdays are my day for me, a dedicated time to tend to my own heart. I started this practice as a newly-widow because I knew intuitively that if I set aside time to be present to myself, I would be able to be present to my sons in their grief. I continue the practice – though not as religiously – because I still find that I meet the demands of my family more effectively if I have nurtured my own heart first. This will undoubtedly prove essential as I gear up to teach yet another teenage boy to drive.

Sometimes, my “day” only lasts a few precious hours, or even just 10 sacred minutes, but in general, I keep my Tuesdays clear of JD’s, CPA’s, BFD’s and related BS. This consecrated time gives me the wherewithal to deal with the shtuff that the other days dish out. My so-called Charlotte Shabbat is not about ignoring the challenging, crappy parts. On the contrary, it is taking time to integrate both the woundedness and vibrance so that I can navigate life’s storms with a modicum of intention, strength and grace. And so, I make my weekly reservation: a table for one.

When I named the blog Sushi Tuesdays, I didn’t notice a certain four-letter word in the middle until it was too late to change. My kids, not surprisingly, embraced this turn of events wholeheartedly. In fact, they have long referred to my blog as “The Su-shit.” Only recently did I realize that when I pull up the Sushi Tuesdays site on my phone, the web address actually shows as: “sushit…s.com.” I guess it’s official then.

Looking at the dark shadows, the hard truths, the painful reality is key to healing and progress. But it’s critical not to get stuck in the noxious stew. There’s a difference between acknowledging the suffering and marinating in it. You could ignore the unpleasant business entirely, but you won’t make any significant progress. You might instead choose to replay that last dreadful birthday dinner for the next 28 years, but then you will remain firmly stuck in the past. In order to heal, you have to keep moving forward, which is painstaking work, usually slow and occasionally disagreeable. Being open to heal also means being willing to change, which can be exquisitely painful when it requires giving up resentment and self-righteousness. There is no magic healing potion, but the resulting sunshine and light are spectacular.

I have a particular fondness for the simple elegance of children’s literature. There’s a short chapter in The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) featuring a “salesclerk” who sells pills to quench thirst. “They save so much time,” the salesclerk said. “Experts have calculated that you can save fifty-three minutes a week.” Fifty-three minutes no longer wasted drinking water. Fifty-three minutes to invest in some other opportunity for self-fulfillment. Fifty-three minutes, which is about as long as a good therapy session. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

I function best with a balance between motion and stillness. I need time set aside simply to be, to soak up approval, acceptance and love, whether by means of therapy, prayer, meditation or coffee with a friend. And then I need to move – a walk, a run, a stretch, a hike. I start to wonder whether fifty-three minutes well-spent might be the magic pill.

But I’m still practicing. I sit down for a moment of quiet on my meditation pillow, and my prayer bursts out like this: “Okay, Jesus. Here I am. Inspire me. You’ve got 5 minutes. Go.”

To show Him I mean business, I set the timer.

Jesus doesn’t say much, and I enjoy the silence. Surrounded, as I generally am, by kids, electronics, cat, and dog, silence is a scarce commodity. I settle in and find a sense of calm and stability. I sit, I breathe, I soften.

The timer goes off, and I stay sitting, immersed in a sense of belonging and unconditional love. Finally, Jesus seems to have something to say: “Don’t you have someplace to go? And lots of somethings to do?” I don’t flinch. I’m not yet ready to go. I sit another minute.

Then another message: “Okay, Charlotte, that’s all the time you get. Let’s go.” Pause. “I’ll go with you.” Sometimes I invite Jesus into my sacred space, and sometimes He invites Himself. But that’s what I needed to hear, the promise of presence. Now I’m ready to go.

I am not afraid that the bad stuff Life throws around is going to outweigh, outlive, or outmaneuver the good stuff. I am not afraid to call it by name. This must be why I’m so amused by the serendipitous “shit” in the middle of my SushiTuesdays. There are times when acknowledging the hard stuff, calling it out, takes away its momentum, its mystery, its sway. Then it’s easier to move on. I’m not afraid of a few choice words. Sometimes commandeering such a word takes the wind of out its sails. I recall, for example, the evening that my then 7-year old stood at the back door, following a rock-smashing grief session, and demanded, “Mommy, what’s for fucking dinner?”

I briefly considered delivering a lecture on the use of expletives or the appropriate respect one should have for his mother. For a fraction of a second, I thought I might laugh out loud, because he was so stinking adorable. But he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was furious, he was suffering, he was heartbroken. Plus, he was hungry. So in what turned out to be one of my more inspired mothering moments, I told him what was for dinner, “fucking mac and cheese.” Which is to say, “I hear your pain. I’m with you, baby. Let’s eat.”

Life tends to feel a lot better after some snacks and a nap.

And then we’re ready to go.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And 53 minutes for yourself.

Funeral Attendance

I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.

I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.

The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.

Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.

I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.

You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.

The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.

The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.

On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.

In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.

So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.

***

Light and strength.