We Begin Again

Mom

The so-called little one. I can hear the anguish in his voice a thousand miles away through the one word text message. It’s a terrible thing to lose a hero, especially when they’re so young. Or we are. Or ever, really.

Whether that hero is an icon or a parent, a son or a daughter. We ground our hopes in their vitality and curiosity and tenacity, and through them find our own. But what to do when they are gone?

Kobe died in a helicopter crash.

We feel the loss keenly, the way it reverberates on the heartstrings of our own losses.

Kobe was 41; my husband was 41 when he died.

He died on January 26th; my dear father-in-law died on the same date a few years ago.

His daughter, too; it’s impossibly sad.

I think about a blue-sky day, not long ago. I was out walking my dog when I saw my neighbor walking their dog. A neighbor, and also a friend. Our families have coordinated carpool, celebrated graduations and bar mitzvahs, shared meals and concert tickets.

I cross the street to greet him, and he looks gaunt and pale, almost gray. My stomach clenches, prepared – not prepared, braced – for imminent bad news. I can almost hear the words “I have cancer” before he says them, but what he says is unimaginable. “My son is dead,” and suddenly I understand that this is not a dad with a terminal illness, it is a father in grief, in shock. There are not enough words for this kind of pain. His son was traveling abroad; he was supposed to return home to begin his junior year in college. Catastrophe is not how the story was supposed to go.

There is no way to make sense of this. I have so many questions I do not ask. It won’t make any difference; no answer will bring the boy back.

I have no words. There are no words. Only palpable pain and silence.

I do not want to offer the platitudes I myself had been served. But I probably offer up different ones. Maybe not. I can only hope.

I give him a hug.

“I have no words,” I say.

“There are no words,” he says. And we look at each other for a long moment, until his dog wags her tail and puts her paws up for attention. He smiles wanly, and says “What is there left to do but walk the dog?”

Indeed. There is nothing to say or do, only that I am glad that he told me himself. There is something about the communal breaking of hearts that softens the suffering, if only slightly. And the walking of dogs.

Almost immediately I think of an overcast day a few months earlier, when I met up with a friend whose teenaged son had fallen to his death in a crazy, tragic accident. As I held her she sobbed and said, “How can people walk their dogs?”

Indeed. Normalcy has no place in a world that has been tilted off its axis by so great a loss.

Take care of yourselves, Tuesday people. Walk the dog. Or not.

Inhale, exhale, repeat.

Notice where it hurts.

Shoot baskets until your arms ache.

Shout, cry or talk. Or don’t.

Write. Write a song. Or a poem. Or gibberish. It all counts.

Pray. Or not. Tell God to take Her own flying leap.

Sit and stare vacantly at silent green stems for however long it takes the daffodils to open.

Feed yourself with something good and spicy or sweet and life sustaining. Or both. You are here. You are loved.

Today begins again the healing process. I leash up the dog, who is an enthusiastic partner for the journey, and we spend an hour moving along in companionable silence. We stop to smell the paperwhites, now open, that we’ve been watching for a week. As we are nearing home, I see a woman up ahead on the road. I’ve only seen her once before — two miles ago when our paths met for a short stretch. She smiles broadly as we cross paths again. “Still going!” she says.

I smile in return, “Yes, we are!”

Yes we are. Still going. 

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. You’re still going.

***

Sometimes people ask me what I’m reading these days. Here you go:

Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, by Tembi Locke (If possible, and especially if you aren’t fluent in Italian, I recommend listening to the audio version, read by the author herself.)

 

Imagine

“Just as long as I’m in this world, I’ll be a light of this world.”

~ Joan Osborne

 

We have the opportunity – again, today – to bring this world closer in line with our imagination of how it could be. As we envision a place of equal opportunity, fairness in abundance, and vibrant integrity, we draw those ideals closer to our lived experience.

It is not easy. These dreams do not take root without our participation.

Yesterday I heard an audio clip from a sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. His voice rises and falls with passion and clarity, the telltale static in the background betrays the age of the recording. He speaks of freedom from bondage and discrimination and injustice. He encourages us to “keep on keeping on in order to gain freedom.” He urges persistence and consistency in the pursuit of equality and justice and peace.

The reverend’s voice is not the only one I hear speaking with conviction and purpose. Behind me in the pew sits a child, maybe eight or nine years old, reading along and out loud the printed excerpt of Dr. King’s speech. The young voice is cheerful and confident, an emerging reader describing the world as it could be, a place inhabited by people of purpose and character and led by principled leadership. This little voice is not shushed, and is not discouraged by the sluggishness of progress. As I sit listening, this duet fills me with hope: the voice of experience in synchrony with the voice of optimism. We are already the beloved community, and also, we must create a community where each of us feels our belovedness.

We have work to do.

We start by imagining a more just and peaceful world, and then we take steps – little ones, persistent ones, splashy ones – to bring that world to light.

***

Wishing you light and strength on the path toward your dreams. And the freedom to dream out loud.

Inhale, Exhale, Repeat

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I’ve entered the New Year with a bit more stillness than in years past, which I attribute to the fact that I’ve become more consistent with my meditation practice. Could be the everlasting sticky cold that has planted me on the sofa for days on end.

I suspect it has something to do with the empty nest as well. After decades of raising four boys, the house is oddly quiet now. And the ancient cat, an 18-year-old Siamese mix with his congenitally crooked tail and his sock fetish, is gone. He always had something to say, a morning greeting, opinions about our competence, demands regarding his dining experience, objections to the fact of the dog. The silence of his missing meow practically echoes around here.

The garbage truck beep-beep-beeps down our little cul-de-sac, and I make a mental note to remind the boys to bring in the garbage cans when they come home from school. I look at the clock – it’s almost time for school to release – and I feel the butterfly wings of excitement. I always look forward to the afternoon moment when they walk through the door, strong and vibrant, silly and weird.

And then I remember that they are all now off at school or working or exploring. It’s scary and hard and wonderful and amazing. I am grateful and proud and also just ever so slightly bereft.

The fall was easier to take. One college drop-off, then another. One parent weekend, then another. The honeymoon trip we had delayed for nine years, planned for that exact moment when all the boys were off to the races, and then the holidays arrived.

The winter drought is harder. A slower pace, fewer gatherings to propel the calendar forward. Fewer distractions. More focus on this one moment. Settling into the rhythm of my own life is oddly challenging. But I sit, letting the energy settle and swirl, feeling the opportunity gathering in the quiet moments. It is, if I am completely honest about it, an intriguing time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the defective hunting dog is proving to be an excellent meditation companion. It will be interesting to see where we go next, but for now, we sit.

***

Wishing you light and strength right where you are. And comfort in the silence.

***

If you are looking for some meditation resources, these ones caught my attention recently:

Tara Brach is offering a Radical Compassion Challenge, January 21-30, 2020. “The medicine our world needs is widening circles of compassion. We need to love ourselves – and each other – into healing.”

Sharon Salzberg is offering her Real Happiness Meditation Challenge for the month of February, 2020. “Each week of the Challenge explores a different type of meditation practice to cultivate greater focus, clarity, kindness and resilience.”

Oprah Winfrey & Deepak Chopra are offering their 21-day meditation program, Perfect Health, which begins February 3, 2020. “Discover the healthiest version of yourself.

Thoughts for the New Year

“Yearly reminder: there is no resolution that, if kept, will make you more worthy of love. You, as your actual self and not as some made up ideal, is already worthy.”

~ Nadia Bolz-Weber

 

My actual self, sniffling and sneezing at the moment, is exceedingly grateful that the desiccated tree sits out on the curb and the Christmas CD’s are tucked away in their cases. Or at least stuffed in a drawer. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the holidays, the scent of pine and cedar, of freshly baked bread and ginger and cinnamon, cheerful lights, hugs from cousins we don’t see nearly often enough. Those seasonal treats do fill me with a confidence in the goodness of life and the steadiness of love, which I really appreciate when the holiday blues hit home.

I love finding the perfect gift. It’s my greatest joy. Even better than the thrill of receiving the perfect gift. Although I love that, too.

But sometimes it feels like I’m holding my breath from the time I queue up the Pandora holiday channel until the day I unplug the tree. Finally, the exhale.

Now I can get back to work. And boy do I have work to do. That’s the good news and the bad news.

Today, I am sequestering myself in a little corner of the house, by a window so I can stare into the treetops from whence inspiration might float down to me, a renegade leaf on a breeze. Wrapped in a blanket with a freshly steeped pot of tea and my favorite writing pen. Plus a box of tissues. Strangely, the defective hunting dog is not at my feet. He is miffed that we are not out walking into this morning, and he is consoling himself by crawling back under the covers with the so-called little one, who is home from college for winter break. It’s a dog’s life.

There is a tension between living in the space where we feel our worthiness – right now, just as we are, loved completely, whole – and moving along, taking the next steps, looking forward. What exactly are we looking for if we are already whole? Why move at all? Where might it be possible to to go in order to add to wholeness? Can we live in the pause? Stillness and movement simultaneously in the moment.

The seed already contains the flower, and all that jazz, but it is true that when I stop to feel the fullness of the moment – a complete breath, a grateful heart, a beautiful soul – then grace carries me into the next moment, woefully broken as it may be. When I allow myself to pause, to feel the sadness and fear, the disappointment in songs unsung, this, too, might be exactly the weight required for the next sacred moment. I won’t know until I get there.

I guess I am just trying to encourage you to take your complete and beautiful if ever-so-slightly-glitchy self into the day, with patience and kindness but also with purpose. I’ll do the same.

So, in the spirit honoring the seed in each of us, I offer you this poem:

In Lieu of Flowers by Shawna Lemay

A few years ago I read a friend’s father’s obituary on Facebook. His father had requested in lieu of flowers, please take a friend or loved one out for lunch.

Although I love flowers very much, I won’t see them when I’m gone. So in lieu of flowers:  Buy a book of poetry written by someone still alive, sit outside with a cup of tea, a glass of wine, and read it out loud, by yourself or to someone, or silently.
Spend some time with a single flower. A rose maybe. Smell it, touch the petals.
Really look at it.
Drink a nice bottle of wine with someone you love.
Or, Champagne. And think of what John Maynard Keynes said, “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne.” Or what Dom Perignon said when he first tasted the stuff: “Come quickly! I am tasting stars!”
Take out a paint set and lay down some colours.
Watch birds. Common sparrows are fine. Pigeons, too. Geese are nice. Robins.
In lieu of flowers, walk in the trees and watch the light fall into it. Eat an apple, a really nice big one. I hope it’s crisp.
Have a long soak in the bathtub with candles, maybe some rose petals.
Sit on the front stoop and watch the clouds. Have a dish of strawberry ice cream in my name.
If it’s winter, have a cup of hot chocolate outside for me. If it’s summer, a big glass of ice water.
If it’s autumn, collect some leaves and press them in a book you love. I’d like that.
Sit and look out a window and write down what you see. Write some other things down.
In lieu of flowers,
I would wish for you to flower.
I would wish for you to blossom, to open, to be beautiful.

***

Wishing you light and strength as you blossom into this New Year.

Touchstones

Sometimes it’s like he’s just really far away, on a secret mission in an undisclosed location, beyond cell coverage, without a return ticket. There’s no way to reach him or leave a note. He’s not coming back, and he’s not sending any text messages, not even a single, solitary poopy emoji. And yet, oddly, there’s still a relationship.

My son says, “People don’t get it. To them it seems like forever ago, even if it’s only been six months, and that everything is normal again. They don’t understand that, even after it stops being news for everyone else, you’re still living it every day.” Grief takes its own sweet time.

I return to this place, the cemetery where Sam was buried more than a decade ago. I am here for the funeral of a man I never met, the father of a friend. I show up early, early enough to visit Sam’s plot before the service begins. I do not come here often, sometimes years pass between my visits, but I know exactly where he lies. There’s been a lot of construction around the site in the last ten years, but I have no trouble finding Sam’s spot. I park at the bottom of the hill and climb up. When the boys were little, the slope seemed so much steeper and farther. Now they could ascend the hill in about three steps.

A sacred friend planted a gorgeous pine tree in Sam’s honor on the Lake Arrowhead property where we attended family camp together for many happy summers. The pine was planted on the edge of the lawn where they hold Shabbat services, the Friday sunset observance, ushering divine peace into open hearts on a warm evening breeze.

The so-called little one went to his junior prom over the weekend. When he was trying on his tux at the rental shop, another mom commented, “Your son looks just like you,” which thrilled me but also made me laugh. This is the second time in seventeen years that anyone has told me this child looks like me. The first person to say so retracted her statement about ten seconds after she said it. “Actually…,” she paused. “He looks a lot like Sam.” In fact, more people say he looks like his step-father than say he looks like me. But anyone who knew Sam recognizes the soft brown eyes, the gentle smile, the mischievous glint.

The gravestone is tarnished, worn by rain and sun and time. The inscription reads, “Let it not be death but completeness.” This site is also accessible by a walking path. I chose this spot specifically so that his parents could reach it easily – no hill climb required – but these days his mother is too fragile to spend time here with Sam. His parents’ declining health is a touchstone that reminds us of the depth of the loss. Intellectually, I know that he does not exist in this earthy plot of green, but it holds a strange gravity. The boys have lived longer without their father than they did with him, longer with their step-father than their biological one, and I am humbled to tears by the vastness of love that continues to hold these boys.

The pine tree is only a few years old and a few feet tall. We expect it to thrive. It has been nourished with this blessing: “May it grow tall and strong as a reminder of a good man, husband and father.”

More than a few friends have commented that the boy looks the spitting image of his father in the prom pictures. Not one says he looks like me. I think Sam would say that the boy looks exactly like himself. It’s not so painful anymore, although sometimes I ache with a longing, wishing that Sam could see the young man his son has grown into, both the boy and me looking for a sign of his father’s approval.

I sit at Sam’s side for a few moments. I don’t really need this place to “talk” to him. I pretty much speak my mind whenever, wherever. I offer up a prayer, and while I often simply sit with folded hands to pray, I make the sign of the cross here in the cemetery and imagine Sam’s lopsided smile. He would be thoroughly amused that his Christian wife had arrived entirely too early. I can almost hear him, “Didn’t I teach you anything about standard Jewish time?”

We didn’t go to family camp last summer. Instead, our now family of six decided to take our first international trip. Our traditions have served us well, providing a foundation for our future family adventures together.

In the same way that I didn’t want the boys to avoid their grief and sadness, I didn’t want them to avoid this physical place. It’s impossible, after all, not to bump into these moments. Like a friend, who happens to be at the same restaurant, Sam’s life – and his death – cross our paths, often in ways we aren’t anticipating. The funeral, prom night, summer plans, bring us in touch with the mystery that somehow – even after Sam’s death – we have a relationship, a connection, a sacred communion. Our memories become more blessing than suffering, and we draw strength, warmth, shade and comfort.

These moments bring us back to the intersection where he lost his life, and where we are continuing with ours.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path.

An Approximation of Psalm 23

Good Lord, I have a lot of talented, thoughtful friends. Who could have imagined such abundance?

She goes to the grocery store for me, so I can lie down in the grass and stare at the clouds.

She teaches me to meditate.

She touches my life with humor; I cannot resist the urge to laugh.

One sacred friend sends me notes of encouragement every morning, and every evening, I trust her gentle light to guide me forward.

They do not leave me alone, these princess warriors; they send flowers, text messages and emails; they make cards and phone calls; they go with me to the therapist’s office and the attorney’s.

She takes me out to lunch and patiently lets me cry.

She shows up on my doorstep with Pinot Noir and dark chocolate.

So many provide my family with meals that I need a calendar to keep track of them all; there are not enough days in the month for so many dinners.

She reminds me who I am;

And I cannot help but to share this love myself, to participate in this proliferation of beauty and light.

Bruins and Trojans

“It’s so nice to see you!”

I smile and reply, “It’s nice to see you, too!” That’s the transcript of our entire conversation. The dog and I continue on our run, but the smile and the connection stay with me.

This woman is like me, out walking her hapless dog, and she is also, like most everyone I know, someone to whom life has dished out some big-time-heart-break. Politically, we have – shall we say – divergent views, and I almost wish I didn’t know this about her. It might be easier to offer a smile and a hug. Ignorance is bliss, after all. But does it have to be so hard?

I reach into my UCLA Bruin heart and say hello to a lot of USC Trojans. I send quite a few Christmas cards to Trojan friends, I host several of them at my own table, and I even have one on speed-dial. Trojan-provided scones blessed my family’s breakfast just last week. On one notable January First in recent Rose Bowl history, I personally donned the cardinal and gold (you will have to ask my Trojan bestie for the photos) and encouraged the team. I do believe that Fight On is the greatest college slogan ever. Make no mistake, I am not a fan. It’s just that life is bigger than the teams that play. I reach into my Rice Owl heart and sport a sincere “Sic ‘em!” for my son’s Baylor Bears and even the occasional “Hook ‘em!” for my friend’s daughter at the University of Texas.

Kindness and compassion and beauty are bigger than the teams on the field. They just are.

In a Christmas sermon, the priest says how amazing it is that God came to us in the vulnerable form of a baby to bring His light into the world. Herod was so afraid of being de-throned by the baby king that he killed all the infant boys to secure his own power, and the wise men wisely skipped town so as not to lead Herod to the The King. See how wonderful God is to bring light into the darkness? And all this holy hoohah landed on me completely askew. All I could think was, What about the mothers of all those innocent children? Would she have preferred the dark world so long as her son was spared? I would.

I don’t need a God who justifies the loss of life for His win. We have military generals for that. I don’t think God calculates and plans. I believe in a God whose heart breaks with any child’s death, the shepherd who saves the ninety-nine and the one. I admire the Father who doesn’t keep score and certainly doesn’t divide His own children into camps of winners and losers. I believe we have much work to do to bring that sort of existence to life, but that’s the light I would like to contribute to the world. Regrettably, this means opening my heart to…, well, everyone, even Trojans.

I do not believe in a Divine One who closes his heart to the suffering of a family – or any single person – for the sake of the greater good. Likewise, I don’t think closing my heart is the answer. Closed hearts fester; they become suffocated with bitterness, resentment and fear. Broken hearts heal, open to each other, vulnerable enough to love and to be loved. Yes, there is a time to protect the wounded heart, to stay safely in the cocoon, gathering strength. And then comes the time to open, to connect, to shine. We need more love, not less.

We were at a concert the other night, and the conductor explains, “This piece contains the emotional history of humanity. Music is where we connect with each other beyond language and time, and each one of us – composer, performer and audience – plays an integral role in this holy trinity of music. This,” and he holds up the sheet music, “cannot be erased by the victor.” And all I can think is, Yes, this is the kind of power I can believe in. A Divine Music beyond the confines of time and space and out of the dynamic of winners and losers. A God who wears every single color – or the whole entire rainbow – and who shows up and says, “It’s so nice to see you.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And more love.

It’s Like This

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My computer is under the cat somewhere, but the furry tyrant is not in the mood to negotiate. He’s hungry. He’s loud. He’s lost any measure of patience he might once have had. He could not care less about bills or emails or deadlines. He especially does not care about the dog. He could maybe tolerate one of the children, as long as he had their undivided attention, but they – in an act of premeditated and unadulterated selfishness – have left for school. The second best option to the lap is the warm laptop. He will not be deterred. And he will not be ignored.

So I turn my attention to the crabby kitty, and that is how today will go. On days like this, I do my best to surrender, to dredge up a modicum of patience and kindness, to experience a sense of accomplishment in some place other than my go-to to-do list, to trust, to find a flow within the unanticipated course, to be attentive to what joys the unexpected path might bring, to honor the intrusive feline moment.

***

Wishing you light and strength, even on days like this.

Conviction

You might never have known what she’s been through when you see her in your weekly yoga class, arriving on time every Tuesday, appearing, as she consistently does, to be so well put-together, a tall pretty blonde, donning the Lululemon yoga pants and corresponding black lycra jacket favored by stay-at-home moms and PTA presidents, freshly pedicured, a mother with the means to work out (and maybe work, depending on whether she prefers hiring a nanny to take the children to the zoo and Music Together classes or taking them to the park herself, but definitely with the seniority and flexibility to take them to the pediatrician when the cough lingers too many days or the fever spikes too high); no, you might not expect, based on her warm smile and the sturdy, effortless look of her Warrior II, that she had grown up with loving parents but ones with a strong German penchant for stoicism, an inflexible puritan work ethic and demand for perfection, that she had been directed her entire life, when facing grief, sadness, anger, or fear to go into her room and come out when she could be a good girl again, a childhood that would render her unprepared for the maelstrom of emotion she would experience by being widowed at the age of 39 when her husband committed suicide by jumping from a parking structure, the classic stock broker’s death on a gorgeous fall day following Black Friday, leaving her with two young sons, ages 6 and 8, and the monumental task of parenting them as a single mother while grieving her own loss, and that it takes every ounce of her concentration to hold the stance, grounded in her feet, steady in her legs, arms outstretched and parallel to the ground, eyes resting just past her outstretched fingers, inhaling and exhaling and trembling, repeating the mantra to herself, “I can do this, I can do this.”

***

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

Day One

I’m embracing New Year’s more enthusiastically than usual, and not only because 2016 featured several stunning disappointments, but that might have statistical significance. We ended the year by gathering our little family together, and my heart is full.

I resolve to spend the first day of the year sitting in front of the fire that my husband started until I finish reading the book in my lap. Granted, it’s a quick read – 150 small pages, big print, little words – but still. I’m not going to wait for a nasty virus to put me down. I’m going to put my tail in this chair and let the Christmas decorations linger in the living room beyond their expiration date. I’m going to choose stillness.

I’m not especially gifted at stillness. The hum of the washing machine and the dryer betray the fact that I must have gotten up at some point to switch out the laundry. When the washing machine stops the next time, however, I do not budge from my spot in front of the fire. I read for a few more minutes, I gaze at the flames, I watch the cat curled up contentedly in his own chair. Then I finish the book. And when I’m done, I sit a little longer.

I practice more intentional stillness. I’ve been cooking nonstop since Thanksgiving, and while I’ve got the ingredients for a lovely dinner tonight, the kids all have other plans, so I decide not to prepare any of it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I make my husband’s favorite part, the apple pie, and whip up actual whipping cream, and we eat that for dinner together on this hearth.

And then I stare at the blank white pages of my 2017 calendar – not electronic pages, actual paper pages that I can write on with the ink pen in my hand. I love the promise of a new calendar. I stare at those white pages with my heart wide open and dream. I’ve got plans for one graduation in May and one July wedding, but as for the rest of the year…? I wonder what this next trip around the sun will bring. For today, I sit still and soak up the energy and possibility of a new day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And peace.