Cry if you want to

Well, shit. I see we have to go through this AGAIN. It’s Mother’s Day weekend — that time of year when the posts hit social media trying to save the world from complexity, trying to strip the sweet from its partner, the bitter, and pretend that we can have all the gauzy sentimentality without any of the darkness. After reading no fewer than three of these pieces this morning, I decided I must rise from my reclined and happily inert position, mount my trusty blogging steed, and ride forth in defense of human wholeness once again. But I had coffee first.

This will be my first Mother’s Day without my mom, who died last October. For the last few years, my mother tried to nudge Mother’s Day in the direction of my sister’s and my motherhood, and away from hers.  Instead of spending the day with her, the three of us would meet for lunch either a few days before or a few days after at her favorite Italian restaurant just south of downtown, the one with the exposed brick and the perfect bread. The place I still can’t go yet.

039-2So here I am this Mother’s Day, at once a mother and a motherless child, thankful for the fact that my mother encouraged us to associate the day more with ourselves than with her. But still, it’s right in your face and you start to wonder “how am I going to feel about this?” And there they are — the articles about Not Having Your Mom on Mother’s Day.

And man, so many of them contain a version of what I can’t help but think is really terrible and sad advice:

Don’t cry today. Your mom would want you to be happy.

People, NO. The layers of wrongness to this are legion. I mean, I get it. We want people to be okay, and we want them not to be so destroyed by a holiday that they cannot enjoy it. But we have to stop this, and here’s why: because an immutable characteristic of an authentically lived life is that we are not always okay. We have to stop fearing pain and grief, and we have to stop trying to enforce cheer. It takes a lot of courage to follow loss and grief down its own path without trying to control it, direct it, manage it, or resist it.

Because following it means things like this: You will cry when you open your cabinet one random morning and see the two beautiful coffee mugs your mother gave you after your divorce because, as she insisted, you will need two again someday, Jennifer. You will. (And I did.) And you’ll have tears in your eyes as you open the fridge and get your coffee creamer, because it’s an odd time for that to happen, and you may have to explain it to your husband. But that’s what it means to surrender to loss instead of merrily pretending that my mother would not want me to be sad.

The funny thing is, in that moment, I appreciated her so much. What I felt in that moment wasn’t just loss. It was a blend of loss, pain, appreciation, and gratitude.

And I know this in my bones: You can’t have one without the other. Over time, the proportions may change, but I will die on this hill: Attachment and love are partners with grief and loss. Loving someone is complex, and it’s still complex after they’re gone. Joy and pain swirl together and must be experienced as an entity of its own. There’s a reason for the word bittersweet.

Instructing people to control their emotions and not cry on Mother’s Day because their mother wants them to be happy is a warning not to trust the process, and to wrest away control of it for the sake of something that may or may not be true. That’s so sad to me. I’d rather be open to the memory of my mom tomorrow, come what may. I may cry a lot, or not at all, or perhaps a little bit when I visit the tree that fell in my yard the day after she died. I’m not stepping off the path for anyone, even if my mom would be so ill-advised as to want me to.

Trusting the process also has the benefit of including people who are motherless for all manner of reasons other than death — abandonment, involuntary separation, estrangement, addiction, mental illness, dementia, imprisonment, or any combination of the above.

So if you really want Mother’s Day to be about you instead of about your mother’s absence, then keep to your own path. Feel what comes. Cry if you want. Tears are cleansing and often beautiful. Or don’t! That’s fine too. Or maybe you’ll find that Sunday is fine, but Monday hits you like a truck. No one is sure what’s around that curve. Trying to control it is an illusion, destined to fall apart.

So my advice for motherless children on Mother’s Day is just this: Stay curious, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you how to feel. They probably mean well, but they’re talking more about their own fears than about you.

 

 

 

A file full of ghosts

Last week I began sifting through the boxes in my basement. I was looking for my old film cameras, to determine if I wanted to sell them. On top of a box full of 15-year-old slides I found a blue accordion file folder.

When I opened it, I found a number of cards and letters I’d saved over the years. In the front pocket were 4 or 5 cards from my former father-in-law who died in February. He had a gruff and sometimes challenging personality, but it was checked by a surprisingly sweet and generous, but undeniably dry, sense of humor. That humor most often appeared either in his stocky engineer’s handwriting, or in a mumbled baritone as an aside to some grump-ism he’d just uttered — there had to be just a little bit of interpersonal distance for it to appear. I went through the cards one by one, laughing, and I sent screenshots to his son, my ex-husband. I carefully separated the cards out to give to him, showing them first to my son, who misses the grandparents he lost this year acutely.

In the process of collecting the cards, a crisp white envelope fell out. The address where I lived 26 years ago was typed neatly and evenly on the front, and in the upper left-hand corner was a return address label adorned with seashells and my grandmother’s full name. The postmark was 1 JUL 1993. A particular and nearly forgotten feeling of being cared for washed over me, a feeling that, historically, came only from seeing my grandmother’s impeccably addressed letters. She had something to tell me.

My grandmother rarely wrote a letter that didn’t contain an insight of some kind. There was always the usual small talk, but she was a thinker, a processor, and to some extent, a philosopher. Like me, my grandmother had to work the events of life into a narrative that made sense to her. And she was often willing to share her conclusions, which I suppose was one reason she saved my emotional life as a child. My grandmother was often the only one of the adults in my orbit who shared my mental process, and so life simply made more sense when I was with her.

The date on the letter, I noticed, was a couple of weeks after I lost my grandfather on the other side of my family, a lively, warm, funny man whom I had adored, and who adored me in turn.

img_2209The letter began:

“Dear Jen,

I’m thinking of you today as you mourn the loss of your Grandfather. This is probably the first time that you have lost someone very close to you. You will find that it is the hardest thing in life to accept. People will say and do comforting things, but nothing helps except the passage of time. It is hard to accept because death is really an unknown condition. But surely the depth of love that we feel on this earth for other persons doesn’t end here. I think about dying, and I’m certainly old enough to, but I reject the thought of leaving my friends and family. This, however, is the pattern of life. We are all going to die at some time in our life, and if we didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough room on this earth for all of us. It is usually the old ones who die and that is good, because we have been privileged to experience all the good things as well as the bad for a very long time.”

I wondered, as I read it, if she wasn’t talking as much to herself as she was to me. A week later, I am still astounded to find, in a nondescript blue accordion file in a random box among piles of them in my basement, evidence that my grandmother wrestled with the same things I am wrestling with. I don’t remember with much clarity how I felt as I read this for the first time; I remember only a vague sense of comfort, the kind I always felt when I received her wisdom. But the letter wasn’t nearly as much for 1993-me as it was for 2019-me.

The researcher Brene Brown has said that one of the most powerful things a person can say to another is “me too.” And here she was again, whispering in my ear, only a short period of time after I wrote, in a fit of grief for another lost friend, that I will never get used to losing people. Me neither, she said. But this is the pattern of life; this is how it is and must be.  There was no attempt to fix it, no explanations of how to deal with it — just a simple expression of feeling, of doubt, of mystery, and then, of her usual kindness and warmth.

I couldn’t believe it. Here she was still, holding space for me long after she’s supposed to be gone.

She went on:

[Your grandpa] had such a wonderful sense of humor, he must have enjoyed his life here….Fond memories brought out occasionally are what they have left us. We oldies that are still here can only hope that we have left some too.”

And of course, she did, and I was just lucky enough to find one when I needed it. And so here I am again, like the author Sherman Alexie, not believing in ghosts, but seeing them all the time.

 

It ain’t the wrinkles, folks

We went to Purdue University’s Bug Bowl yesterday, where I achieved a breakthrough in personal growth by high-fiving a tarantula named Blondie. This was the option offered by my stepdaughter, an entomologist staffing the Insect Petting Zoo, for those not quite ready for the full-on act of cradling a huge spider in one’s hand. It involves putting a single finger out in front of the nearest of the Blondie’s forward-moving legs, and letting it connect for a second or two. A few years ago, I don’t think I even could’ve gotten near the tarantula, but this year, I actually enjoyed feeling the gentle squeeze of Blondie’s pincers as she tried to gain purchase on my finger. For some reason, I could see the spider as vulnerable, a fellow traveler on this often unkind space rock, instead of something to be disgusted or terrified by.

080I don’t know; maybe that’s overthinking it. The real point is that I’m still growing, still learning, still challenging myself, still trying new things, and declining to take comfort in set ways — probably more so than I was 11 years ago, or even 20. This has been a pleasant surprise to me: the older I get, the more risks I’m willing to take, and the more I’m able to do. Careening through my 40’s hasn’t limited me. Quite the contrary. My life is still remaking itself in gorgeous, surprising ways.

Ever since knowing my neighbor in Montana a decade and a half ago — a doctor in her 50’s who pursued her life with a zeal and purpose I never saw in my contemporaries — I’ve suspected that for a woman, that decade can usher in an explosion of life, creativity, and self-actualization. Kids are gone; finances are sometimes better; the limitations of marriage have either been improved upon or escaped.

I won’t lie, though; this era has its physical challenges. The mirror’s reflection is still sometimes a shock. My joints ache after fewer miles than before.  There’s something ironic about gaining all this freedom, only to struggle to use it. But you persist.

And so it was that we were on our way home from my tarantula encounter, and out of boredom, I wandered onto my phone’s Facebook app. And waiting there was the announcement from an old friend’s new widow that he had unexpectedly died the night before, leaving behind three kids, one under 6, and a devastated circle of family and friends. He wasn’t the first old friend of mine who had died too young. My friends and family starting dying about 3 years ago, when I reached the age that lots of people’s friends and family start dying of natural causes.

And I am here to tell you: forget wrinkles, forget menopause, and forget the hip joints that now ache after only a few miles. I will never get used to the part of aging and mortality in which my friends and loved ones die; especially the ones who are dying long before they should. It’s only going to speed up from here, and I will never get used to it. It never occurred to me that one of the greatest challenges of aging would be assimilating and managing all of that sadness and grief, refusing to turn away from it, without letting it prevent me from living fully the time I have available. I’m not sure how to do it. Maybe it’s something I’ll get better at with time, experience, and effort. Like holding tarantulas.

I don’t think there’s a clean answer for it. I think it’s all about stumbling around, forgetting to live in the midst of loss, then remembering again. Over and over and over, until it’s my own time to step off the train.

Field Notes from — Nah, lets do squirrels instead

I’ve inadvertently fallen for my local squirrel community. This is a pretty common thing to do, I know.

On the west side of my house, I keep two huge, squirrel-proof feeders. The deck in summer is reserved for hummingbird feeders, so I can watch and photograph them from my kitchen window. In winter, I put up a seed feeder. It’s not squirrel proof. Which is how we got this scene in early January:

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Matters progressed from there.

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Being in a generally dark mood this winter, I couldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth and remove the feeder. So instead I opted to become a kind of Jane Goodall of squirrels, justifying my continued feeding of these rodents in the name of citizen science. I would learn about and report on the secret lives of urban squirrelry.

I don’t keep the feeder constantly full, because I’m mindful of my friends needing to find better suited food on the regular, and there are population issues to be considered. And also I just don’t want to have armies of squirrels on my deck at any given time. Conditions edged there one Saturday after a cold snap:

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The outcome of this project has been that I’m now acquainted with individual squirrels and their temperaments, and in the larger community dynamics. My son and I have identified and named two of them, Slim and Stretch. Most of the squirrels that come to the feeder are female. (Another thing I’ve learned is that, when you see a male, it’s, uh, really obvious.) The ladies don’t tolerate much from the dudes. The last time I saw a male on the deck, Stretch casually shoved him into the birdbath.

The daily schedule works well for all parties. Chickadees, which lose up to 15% of their body weight on a winter night and need to get to the buffet pronto in the morning, arrive before dawn. House finches and juncos show up next. Squirrels mostly sleep in till well after dawn,  spend the hours of 9 to 1 plying the feeder, then leave. The birds come back after that.

Squirrel gestation season, I’ve learned, is right now. Young squirrels stay in the nest till they are ready to follow their mothers around and learn the drill. The timing here works well, because the seed feeder will make way for the hummingbird feeder in about eight weeks, so the young-uns won’t get a false education.

They can learn how to handle the seed feeder next winter on their own, like their mothers did. Walking seven miles through snow, barefoot and uphill. Literally.

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Field Notes from GriefLand, Entry 3: Depresh

The other day it occurred to me that if celebrity chef Rachael Ray ever had occasion to address that mental state characterized by ingrained melancholy, she’d invent a chirpy name for it, like depresh. Ray has her own language, as many of you know, replete with made-up terms: EVOO, sammies, and Yum-O. Then there’s her pet food, Nutrish.

Depresh: mental illness, now with extra whimsy.

In that vein, today is Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday, and I read on Twitter that he once sent the following in a letter:

“I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders. I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am

Ever yours

Darwin”

Darwin, it is commonly known, suffered from depresh. Various theories concerning the source of his mental illness include everything from chronic lactose intolerance to parasitic tropical diseases. (I’m inclined to favor the lactose intolerance theory, though,  since he once wrote to a doctor about his uncontrollable nightly farting.)

But causes be damned, I love that paragraph. It sounds almost like something you’d read on Twitter today, if you just swapped out Victorian words like “poorly” and “farewell.” There’s even the obligatory punctuation-deprived sentence that tries to cram in a description of his misery and then completely disown it: “I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind I am ever yours, Darwin.”

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And fuck these orchids in particular. xoxo, Chuck Darwin.

I love that paragraph because I get where it’s coming from on a gut level. You want desperately to convey your own frustration with your mental state, but then you don’t really want people freaking out too much, and you’re really not comfortable being attended to and hovered over, so you tack on “farewell and in a sweet frame of mind.” And you don’t use punctuation, because that gives the reader too much time to escape complete confusion.

I get it. I’m a chronic lighten-upper myself, and would probably joke with my own murderer just to lift the mood a little. But glaring from that paragraph like a diamond is the ages-old shame at one’s depressed mental state. No one really wants to embrace depresh.

I’ve come to suspect that much of what makes depression feel so terrible is not just that it actually feels terrible — though it absolutely does — but that feeling bad about feeling bad just makes things worse. In Darwin’s day, weakness and misery was a character issue, and today, it’s barely changed. Our culture seems to impose a moral imperative to be constantly chipper. Women particularly are admonished, usually via memes on Facebook, to eschew “negativity” and are warned that they alone are responsible for their emotional state, and that they’d always better be prepared to choose joy. (To avoid having to explain this later, because someone will inevitably take me to task for it – no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “choosing joy.” But it ought not to be an obligation, and it ought not to be assumed that it’s within everyone’s power to do so.)

No one likes a constant sad sack, but I have a lingering suspicion that there is some daylight between being a constant Debbie Downer, and yet casting a jaundiced eye at all the lectures about how “we choose how we feel.” Do we, really? Has anyone met their brain? I mean really, people, those things have minds of their own.

And anyway, what if depression is adaptable? What if depression is normal in certain circumstances? What if, goddamn it, depression is called for? And what if trying to climb the slippery walls of the depression well just makes you even more tired, and gets you nowhere?

As you can imagine, these questions about depression were particularly piercing for Charles Darwin. Having formulated the concept of survival of the fittest, he was then obliged to ask himself whether he was among those fit to survive. But maybe his depression served a purpose. There’s reason to think it did.

Above all, depression is about mental cud-chewing. Some brain geeks think depression is connected with an over-achieving default mode network, that portion of the brain that kicks in when our minds are at rest, when we are daydreaming, or otherwise mind-wandering. (It’s also called the task-negative network.) The default mode network is also active when one is thinking about themselves, or others, or the past. To my uneducated eye, the default mode network seems to house an awful lot of our selves.  There is some suggestion that during depression, the DMN is just very, very busy, going round and round and round again. And this neural cud-chewing, while sometimes pointless, harmful, and chronic, can sometimes bring things front and center that need to be processed – problems that need to be solved, or feelings that need to be resolved. Or in Darwin’s case, uncontrollable gas and the theory of evolution.

In my case, two years of people I love dying, a career transition and all the terror that went with it, and making close acquaintance with my own mortality.

Depression may indeed be called for, sometimes. And that’s why I wish we had more tolerance for it when it is. In my ideal world, there would be room for the default mode network to light up like a Christmas tree, and have the space to work. Situational depression wouldn’t be something that threatened to derail a life, but rather a sacred task designed to advance it. No one likes being in pain. But to have the space to do it, for awhile, to let the gears turn and not have one’s pain exacerbated by shame or the consequences of the inevitable inertia, would be a better way to do things.

No, I have no idea how that would work. But maybe someday the anthropologists of my dream society would write dissertations on the rituals of depresh.

Sunday Before Christmas, 2007

From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.

Cloudy, 32 degrees. There are about six inches of snow on the ground. Thomas and I took our walk this morning, crunching companionably through the snow crust together.

Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?

Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.

View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana
View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana, Christmas Eve 2007

 

Field Notes from Grief Land, Entry 2: Bargaining

I’m not a poet. I don’t think in verse and I don’t typically write in verse, and I’m okay with that. I’m not a singer either, except in my car. (I’m a rock star there.) Or a painter, except on my walls.

However, a couple of years ago when I lost a good friend to a terrible illness, I began to write this out, as if someone else were occupying my head. (I’m just now remembering that the friend I lost WAS a poet. Oh goodness, more ghosts.)

Then I spent nearly two years changing words around, subtracting out and substituting, and I never completed it because I am not a poet, and poetry does not submit itself to my editing. But I’m in a new part of Grief Land now, so I dug this thing up and decided to surrender to it, along with so many other things.

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Bargaining

After you died

I began to look for your spirit in dragonflies

And once or twice in a red-winged blackbird.

If I’d seen a fox, I would have looked there too,

but the foxes are as scarce as you.

“Is it him?” I’d wonder

when the crepe paper wings you loved

lit on my canoe,

or an okalee song pierced a quiet afternoon.

But neither bird nor fly answered,

And still I felt empty.

Then one day

After a long time of enlisting your favorite animals

to host your missing spirit,

I grudgingly admitted that the dragonfly’s soul

is her own.

And again I felt empty.

But wait a minute, I thought to myself,

maybe this is not about reincarnation.

What if the dragonfly owed you a favor,

for that one time you offered some help,

a long-ago rescue from dire circumstance,

Maybe a botched landing in water

Or entrapment in a screen?

And remembering your kindness

(bear with me here)

the dragonfly agreed to convey your hello,

Just a small poke or a whisper

to one you left here

in a canoe.

Maybe?

Probably not.

But maybe.

Field Notes from Grief Land, Entry 1: Ghosts

Preface: I’ve been writing about my mother for a few months now, both before her death and after. Part of me has resisted continuing.  I think that’s because I absorbed, without thinking about it, a kind of cultural discomfort with a “protracted” grief experience. No one wants to have an extended dance with pain, but I wish we didn’t so often ask ourselves, as if there were something wrong with us, why we aren’t “over it yet” or why we feel the need to keep talking about it. So I’m going to write my field notes here, because that’s where I am. And then I’ll stop when I’m not there anymore. And if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll make sense to some of you still there too.

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I’m a board-certified agnostic about a lot of things, chief among them the afterlife.  I have no idea what, if anything, happens after we die, and it always seems odd to me when people are certain about it one way or another, having never been dead themselves. While I always appreciate a good spirituality with robust metaphor and abundant goodwill and love, I’ve always considered religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists to be two sides of the same coin.

So I can’t say I believe in anything particularly, because I don’t really have a basis to do so.  But if I’m honest, I lean away from a conception of an afterlife that looks anything like the framework of this world.  And yet, as I make my way through my practical reality, I tend to see through that prism anyway.  Put another way, my intellectual orientation doesn’t always match my emotional orientation — a perennial issue for me.

In his memoir about dealing with his mother’s death, Sherman Alexie writes that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he sees them all the time. I understand.

If you think about an afterlife as involving some part of a person’s spirit sticking around to communicate with their still-Earthbound loved ones, I would’ve expected my mother’s soul to move along quickly. She’d been described by others since her birth as fiercely independent, and to be sure, she never really seemed to need the presence of her children, or anyone, really. Tempted by the possibilities that are supposedly present in such a conception of an afterlife, surely she would’ve dropped her Earthly connections like a hot rock and zipped off post haste: Smell ya later, losers. I’m outta here.

This is how it was when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away three years ago. I was really close to my grandmother, but I never felt her around, never dreamed about her, never saw those little telltale signs, nothing. This bummed me out at the time, because I desperately wanted one more connection with her. I didn’t believe in her ghost, but I very much wanted to see it anyway.

When my mother died, I didn’t believe in her ghost and I didn’t expect to see it, because – well, I don’t know why. But it probably had something to do with the fact that she was deeply averse to vulnerability, to needing anyone or even, sometimes, wanting anyone. She was often unwilling to do things for others if those things made her feel exposed or insecure, and she could be uncomfortably blunt about letting you know it. Given a choice between doing afterlife-y things and sticking around to help us feel better, I expected to be on my own for self-care. I expected her death to be, I suppose, an immediate and wholesale break – almost, to my old lizard brain at least, an abandonment, even. And yet, it hasn’t been.

There are subtle things, but not so subtle ones as well: How my dog kept opening, with his nose, the books I brought from her house, even days after they’d been sitting on the hearth, as if there was a treat in the pages he couldn’t find. There are vivid dreams, the tapping on my back when there is no one around to tap me on the back. It’s how when my husband got up to go to the bathroom one night, he grabbed my foot and tickled it – except he didn’t. (But my mother would’ve relished framing him for it.) It’s the fact that I still just feel her around.

I get that there are explanations for these things that comport with the laws of physics and science. The books had my mother’s scent on them, which my dog had come to associate with getting treats after years of her bringing him goodies. Hypnogogia, the transitional state between wake and sleep, is fertile ground for hallucinations and lucid dreams. And feelings of her presence are, well, feelings. Our mind reaches for the things it wants to see.

But the insistence on providing “rational” explanations misses the point. It doesn’t really matter why I’m seeing the ghosts.  I don’t really care why I’m experiencing these things. If they are the product of my mind, then they are still the product of my experiences with her. And what a wonder, all by itself, that our minds produce this kind of salve to help ease us down the road of loss. It’s a connection; I’m not picky about the exact nature of it.

And if it is “her” in some sense involving her continued agency, then what? I surely don’t know any more now than I did before. Either way, it’s her. The ghosts are what they are, and I don’t need to know the details. I’ll just appreciate them, here in the comfortable space between knowing and not knowing.

 

Afterward:

I wrote this while listening to an instrumental Christmas music playlist. Two seconds after I wrote the last sentence, Clair de Lune came on. (I wrote a piece about my grandmother’s and my love for Clair de Lune that my aunt had me read at her funeral.) Was it serendipity or a nudge from my grandmother after complaining about never having experienced one from her? It doesn’t matter. She was here for a moment, with me again.