Loss and Longing

At some stage of grief, we accept that they are gone, really gone. We miss that person, their spirit, the way they were in the world. That’s all gone.

Then the other losses begin to mount. The future, as we planned it. I, in particular, lost my past. Some lose their financial security, or their homes, or the children they never had, or their helpmeet. After we lose the person we all experience a combination of losses particular to ourselves. Whatever they are, the losses keep coming.

And we go on anyway. That’s the stunning fact. Put in a wretched place, hopes and dreams dashed, bereft, achingly alone, knowing that our beloved is never coming back, staring into the gaping hole, we go on. We don’t know how we do it. We do it. There may be strength there, or resources embedded in the human condition. Who knows. Denise modeled this so beautifully. We lose another thing. It seems unfathomable that we can bear this new loss after having lost so much. Shrug. We go on.

After the initial losses and living in crisis to get this household in order and having a fairly successful schoolyear, I fell into a funk. May was enervating. June was a black hole, emotionally. I hated this life, this house, this town, these people who give me strange looks or exclude me or feel so sorry for me that they can’t even look at me. Each time I returned from a trip this summer I held back tears, wishing I could move to a place where people would just treat me like a person. For the month of June I hardly spoke to anyone. I holed myself up, let in the loneliness and felt alienated.

And then I saw that alienation for what it was. It was loss. Not the really bad losses around Steve’s death, but loss, nevertheless. My life resembles my past life–same job, same house, same kids–but I haven’t felt a part of it. My children have been through trauma. They are not the children they were. I am no longer the parent I was. I have the same job, but my career path was lost. And so on with the house, social life, etc. I kept waiting for this grieving to be over so I could resume my old life. But my old life is gone. It is lost. It is never coming back. All these semblances of my old life are illusions, which is what made it difficult to discern that the old life is gone.

That sounds bleak, but that jolted me right out of my funk. Because, loss? Loss I know. I know that we lose and it will be okay. I know that it hurts to not have these things, but we will go on anyway. (And I know that the things I have are very good pieces for building a new life. I know that.)

Something else happened when I acknowledged my situation as loss. I wasn’t getting it back, so I let it go. They tell you that, to let it go. This time, I really understood it. I let it go. And it was liberating. I stopped longing for what I didn’t have. Just like that. I wasn’t even aware that I was in a state of longing for what I don’t have until I stopped. And just like that, I felt freed.

This all happened about a week or two ago, just like that. One day while walking the dogs I noticed that I wasn’t carrying that box of pain in my chest. I was just a person, walking two dogs. I haven’t been resentful or feeling sorry for myself. I’m just doing what I do, grateful for what comes my way. Ever since I couldn’t button a pair of shorts in early June, I’ve been cutting back on my near-nightly wine drinking. That took some willpower, because I’ve hated my long lonely nights, but I’ve been consciously cutting back for the sake of my waistline.  Within the past few weeks, though, this became easy. I haven’t needed to pour that first glass of wine to face the long lonely night ahead. The nights don’t feel so ominous anymore.

I am so pleased to be freed of longing for what I can’t have. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m complacent, or that I don’t want things. In fact, I finally feel the sensation of want. I stopped longing, and I started feeling desire for things I can have.

Back in June, I saw that there was going to be a 5k on the brand new highway. Before they open it for cars, they are letting the walkers and runners and cyclists take it over in an inaugural race. That seemed neat, I thought, but I haven’t been running, so I forgot about it. Not for me. Last week, a friend invited me to run. (Friends ask me periodically. I decline. They back off and ask again a month or two later. I love them for this.) This time, I said I’d like to join her. I ran on my own, just a little, to test things out, and I found that I’m in good starting shape, because I have been keeping up with moderate exercise. I can work my way up to a presentable 5k. And let’s face it, a few runs a week would make it easier to button those shorts. And golly, it will be fun to say to my kids, every time we drive on that highway, “You know, I ran on here once.” Can you imagine the eyerolling? Every time! But, really, the thought of runners taking over that highway makes me think of that half marathon I ran a couple of years ago. The start took us the wrong way down a one-way street. I saw the town through new eyes. In the pack of runners were students, colleagues and friends. I waved hi to spectators I knew and joked with spectators I didn’t. It was so much fun. I loved that Half. I loved doing it in this town. And I really want to run that once-in-a-lifetime run on the new highway. I want to do it because it’s a neat thing to do. I want to do it because I want to.

So I got in touch with those wonderful women in my core group, those women who have asked me to run. We plan to run that 5k together.

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Gift Certificate Redemption

When I cleared out my papers a few weeks ago, I found a gift certificate for a massage, thoughtfully researched by and sent from a colleague in another state last year. To honor that gift, I snagged an appointment for the day before it expired.

On the list of massage therapists, I saw my boot camp instructor from two years ago. Oh, how I loved that boot camp! At 6am sharp, this tiny, energetic woman barked orders at us, and we listened. Oh, we listened! A local judge was in our class. His wife made him take it. We were all sore as heck the next day, and all came back, faithfully, for the next class. Boot camp cracked me up, even when I was in agony. Naturally, I chose the boot camp teacher for my massage.

On the table today, we caught up. I apprised her of my widow situation, but we didn’t dwell. She’s pretty no-nonsense, and that’s what I like about her. We chatted about fencing and horseriding and crossfit and yoga. I admitted that I’m more yoga than crossfit these days. I admitted that I miss boot camp. I thought she was going to give me the “put your own oxygen mask on first” talk, but, instead, she said that this is a time to take care of a lot of important stuff. Boot camp will be there when I’m ready, and she does yoga, too, to ratchet things down, and she hasn’t done that for awhile. I found myself recommending the restorative yin class.

As she left she turned to me and said that there is no timetable for healing, that it sounds like my kids are doing great, and I should keep on keeping on. I was touched. And relieved. For a minute I thought (hoped?) she was going to make me drop and do 15 burpees.

Ghost Stories

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Daughter invited three friends on the carriage ride to the haunted tunnel, followed by a sleepover. It was a birthday party that turned out even more excellent than expected. Afternoon thunderstorms threatened to cancel the ride, but they cleared up by evening. She hadn’t known that kids are allowed to sit on the horses for the whole ride, even on the return trip in the dark, illuminated by the lights of the carriage. We could just as well have been led by the bright full moon that rose over the trees. Most of the kids rode on a horse for a little while, then rotated back to sit next to the driver. Not Daughter. She was up there, on the back of an 18-hand Percheron, the entire time.

Being up front, she couldn’t hear the ghost stories. This area is renowned for being haunted–on campus, in the old mental hospital, in the local cemeteries, in this tunnel. The audience for the stories were the adults in the back of the carriage–me alone, two groups of local women, and a guy and his mom and grandma from out of town. The guy is a writer, researching popular views on the spiritual and supernatural. Throughout the ride, he talked to each of the groups. One of the women shared about her religious background. One of the women had some creepy stories about the old mental hospital. I’d remarked that, as a newcomer to the area, I am struck by the amount of local labor history, the use of natural resources, the development of the railroad, and the like that are bound up in these ghost stories. The local ghost stories are a means of transmission of culture. I’d said that before I knew he was a researcher, and I noted that it warranted a note in his little notebook. That’s when I asked him what he was up to. He explained his project and I told him it was too bad that he lingered behind with his mom and grandma when we’d disembarked from the carriage to hike through the muddy, slippery trails to the tunnel, because we met three guys out there who introduced themselves as “two writers and a wiccan.”

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The guy did a good job of drawing people out. There was so much I didn’t tell him, though. I did mention that local advocates for the mentally ill have been working hard to restore the dignity of the patients who died at the old asylum and to reduce the gawking and irreverence of “ghost hunters” who lurk around the hospital property. I didn’t tell him that I felt the same way about the stories we were hearing on the carriage ride. Workmen who lost their lives in unsafe working conditions, desperate people who took their lives–these are the ghosts that comprise our local lore. These are the human beings who lived here, who struggled, whose families suffered when they were gone. I don’t even wince anymore when I hear a tale told about people who took their own lives. I remove myself for a moment, honor them, remember that they were a person in pain, try to restore a little of their dignity to their legacy that exists now as sensational local legend.

The researcher asked me a little more about myself. I made it clear that I’m a newcomer, unlike the other groups of women in the carriage who had a deep history in the area. He asked me how I like it here, and I was surprised to hear myself say, “I love it here,” considering how down on this place I’ve been lately. But there in the carriage on a little country lane, under the full moon, feeling anonymous, my daughter accompanied by her charming, loyal, spunky friends, I remembered why I feel lucky to have landed here. My daughter was born here. My husband died here. I’ve given this place my blood, my heart. I am a part of this place, and this place will always be a part of me and my children. Maybe my husband’s story will be part of local lore someday. After all, we dropped off a kid one day and he informed us that, years ago, a philosophy professor shot himself in the garage. Another colleague lives in a farmhouse where the husband threw the wife down the stairs. No one is being so disrespectful now, but maybe, years from now, locals will piece together fragments of my husband’s experience and turn it into a lurid story. That doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s what comes of being part of a place. I think of how much would be lost to history–his gentleness, his quick wit, his daughter’s pluck and spirit, his son’s brilliance and struggle and droll wit. I would be partly to blame for the lapses; I haven’t really told people what happened. How could I? How much did they want to know? How much do I really know?

It’s just like any ghost story, because ghost stories are just fragments. How did that one worker fall into the furnace? Was he drunk? If that railman lost his arm, why is the ghost headless? Was that guy struck by the train because he was distracted, or did he let himself get hit on purpose? Our culture clings to the facts we know, we string them together past the gaps, try to tie it up into a story, but there’s always a mystery. And that’s the lingering spookiness at the end of the ghost story–we’ve faced what we don’t know, what we will never know.

The Weaving

Nope, I’m not imagining it. I’m pretty much dropped from local social life. You could blame my failure to reach out and make wellwishers feel comfortable. You could blame others’ own insecurities or insensitivites. At this point, I’ve stopped assigning blame. I’ve just been facing the fact that I’m treated differently. At first I felt the sting of exclusion, then after living with it for awhile, I felt alienated. Each time I’ve traveled this summer, I felt my heart sink upon returning to this town, where I am treated as a tragic figure, or a heroic mother, or a person who makes others uncomfortable. I can’t say what it is that runs through people’s heads when they run into me, or when they don’t invite me to parties. I just know that I feel objectified rather than a human being. I long to move to a new place, where I can start over, my past unknown, and just be treated as a person.

I can’t go anywhere, though, so here I stay. This got me into a funk, and I’ve been trying to fight it. A few weeks ago, when I started to feel the pangs of loneliness, I reached out to a few friends for coffee, or a movie, or a drink. That was nice, and that sustained me for a little longer.

Last week, when I returned from the utopia road trip, I wrote some cards to relatives and friends. I delivered some gift bags to local friends. I extended myself past my zone of loneliness. It felt good. Then I spent the weekend alone, just me and the kids, invited nowhere, not checked in on. It wasn’t so bad, though. I can extend without expecting anything in return. What’s important is the act of reaching out. I had a lot of cleaning to do. I took some naps. I kept the kids busy. I owed the dogs some good walks. I was left alone but didn’t feel alienated.

I went into the office on Monday after steering clear of the place for all of June and half of July.  The secretary was visibly excited to see me. I was touched. When we emailed later in the day, she finished with, “It was so nice to see you!”  I believe her. And it was so nice to see her, too.

Any social life I had was shattered.  I can admit that I am being treated differently in town. I have to just accept it. I have to accept that my old world was destroyed. It is another loss. There are been so many losses.

But, hey, loss? A world destroyed? I know how to deal with them. You just keep on going. You learn to live without a foundation. Without a foundation, you learn to teeter, and to hang on to the threads around you. You look around and realize that the people in the “inner core” of support are genuine and caring and awfully brave, and that these threads are strong. Then you learn to connect the threads around you. And so you ask a friend out to coffee or a movie. You leap at the opportunity to do favors for them. You throw threads out to the outer rings. When someone exudes love and care, you receive it, return it, sit in that moment together. When someone stops you in the grocery store and asks how you really are, you let them see another layer, assuring them that you’re all okay, but you’re suffering, it’s hard, it’s really so hard. When that someone pauses and says they had a recent family loss…that helps them understand your loss much better now, you read between the lines. You say you’re so sorry. You welcome that person into the circle of grief and the realm of the inexplicable. You know that you should savor these moments, not because you’re a loser and this may be the only time a grown-up talks to you, but because this here is real. This is what your social life looks like now–there is no superficiality about it. The threads that you cast out, the threads that are thrown to you, are real. The bonds are strong, the connections are now twisted into a rope with all your mutual experience. You are weaving a new social life. You know that it’s a good one. And you know that any connection could be cut at any time. And you hold on anyway, throwing, catching, weaving. This is how you do it. This is the rebuilding. You accept that you’ll never get back what you lost. But you can’t imagine what you’re capable of building. It could suck. It could be amazing. But you are so chastened that you stop looking ahead. You toss a thread out. A friend catches it, and you throw back your heads with laughter. This is it. Here, now. You stop lamenting what you don’t have and see what you have, what you can build, what you have already woven.

Seven Dragons

Soon after I met her last summer, the acupuncturist suggested a treatment called “The Seven Dragons,” which could release things I hold inside. I wasn’t ready then. Today, I was ready.

She reminded me that the treatment would release emotions. Some people experience that right on the table, but others are more private and process it later. She figured me for a process-it-later patient.* I wasn’t sure what to make of what I was feeling. For the first half of the treatment, with the needles in my back, I felt a rising heartrate and the now-familiar symptoms of mild panic. Then I felt a rush from my chest to my head. But maybe that’s because my head was lower than the rest of my body and I simply got a head rush? I’ve no clue what I’m doing in acupuncture. For the second half, with needles on my front, I felt many positive thoughts coming my way. I felt that pillar that I sometimes feel in yoga, rising up. Maybe that’s what I’ve been holding onto? My own strength? I dunno.

I don’t really believe in acupuncture, or, at least, I don’t fully understand it, but these treatments are certainly doing something, and I trust the doctor in her diagnosis and treatment. There’s something hard and dark in me. No amount of therapy or kayaking or fresh food or laughter has dislodged it.  this treatment seemed worth a shot.

I later googled 7 dragons treatment and found its roots to be in demonic possession. Um. Woah. Doctor? Okay, okay, first of all, if I don’t believe in acupuncture, then I don’t believe in its ancient heritage of possession. And maybe all this talk of possession can be updated to talk about the psychological baggage we harbor. I’m gonna go with that. The acupuncturist is a doctor. I don’t think she’s chasing down demons. She said that the treatment on the back addressed external trauma. The front worked on internal coping with these.  I guess the external actions are the demons, and the internal are my own dragons.

She advised that I clear out the kids so that I could process in peace. I was unable to get rid of the kids, so I just bought a lot of food so they steer clear of me, as needed. I’ve been taking it easy today to wait for the flood of emotions. I spent some time in the office. I drove daughter to a birthday party out in the country. I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t emotional. I admired the pretty country lanes and lovely houses and pieces of land.

In the afternoon, I sank into a nap that lasted three hours. Wow. Was that from the procedure? I drank a lot of water, just in case it was mere dehydration. I treated myself to a case of La Croix and sipped on the bubble water as I picked up daughter. I found a way to get to the party destination–half an hour out in the country–taking all back roads. Daughter is prone to carsickness, so we took the main road back, but I was quietly chuffed at my accomplishment and–hey–I spend a lot of time alone. Exploring country roads is Something To Do, and it was awfully pretty.

I’m waiting for nighttime, wondering if any “processing” will happen. With any luck, I’ll just crash again and get a solid night’s rest. The kids are surprised that I’m utterly calm and pleasant today. As soon as the teenager whined about being hungry (again!**), I invoked the Seven Dragons, suggesting that if he provoked me instead of just raiding the cupboards, I’d Release the Kraken! So now I sit, watching the night fall, wondering if the demons will out, while the kids are on best behavior, lest they awake the Dragon Mother.

 

*Readers may be surprised to hear of my privacy, but you are privy to candor and information that I don’t share much face-to-face. Even when talking about tough stuff with this doctor, I’m pretty calm and even make jokes. She knows I’m holding back quite a bit.

**This teenager has grown three shoe sizes in the last year, and probably 4 inches in just the past few months. He’s not kidding, he’s hungry.

Labyrinth

“A labyrinth is a pattern with a single path that leads circuitously to the center. A maze has many paths, choices, and dead ends.”

–Information sign, Harmonist Labyrinth, New Harmony, IN

Daughter was delighted to find a hedge maze in Williamsburg. She zipped through it, reached dead ends, tried new routes.

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As I walked through, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of her streaking by in her colonial dress, seeking out her own path, thrilled with the challenge and the utter novelty.

On our more recent trip this past week, I had the chance to walk a few different labyrinths. We walked on a granite copy of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. My expectations were low, but once I started walking, I felt like I was a part of it. Daughter ran on ahead. I walked slowly, and Pseudonymous Friend was right behind me. We’d all diverge and then pass one another on different paths.

The next day, PF kindly stayed with daughter at the hotel pool while I hopped on the hotel-provided one-speed bike to check out some local archives. That didn’t take long,  so I cycled over to the hedge labyrinth at the edge of town. It didn’t look that big, but once I was inside, I realized that it kept taking me on more and more circuits of the path. I’d think I was reaching the middle, but then the path would take me outward again. It really didn’t matter if I got to the middle then or later. The point was to just follow the path. When you’re up to your shoulders in hedges and can’t break from the path, you realize that there’s nothing to do but keep going. There’s no sense in racing to the middle or worrying when you’re get there. You’ll get there. Just let that go, and follow the path.

On the morning we left town, we stopped at the hedge labyrinth and all got a chance to walk it. Daughter raced ahead and disappeared. PF went ahead of me and took a path on the left. I went a few steps farther and entered on the right. As we walked, PF and I might spot each other’s heads above the hedges. I could hear Daughter racing past until her footsteps faded away. We were all in different places, but we were all headed to the same place. Some of us took longer routes, some more circuitous. There was no sense in wishing you were on the other path. You were on your own path, we’d meet up eventually, and the only thing to do was keep going.

I still can’t meditate in a labyrinth, but I certainly learned the act of letting go and accepting the path. I learned that letting go of choice and longing is an act of liberation, which frees you to take on the task at hand and find all of the possibility in the moment. I was glad to walk a labyrinth in solitude, but I was also heartened to do it with these people I care about, to realize that we’re all on paths, which lead us to pass by one another, meet periodically, and move on our own.

Pseudonymous Friend and Daughter and I were on a road trip to visit utopian communities in preparation for a new course. We visited a convent and a monastery, too ( and other communities as well). The convent and monastery grounds were beautiful and striking and peaceful in different ways. The monks and nuns exuded such joy. Joining one of these orders requires renunciation–chastity, poverty, and in one case, silence. Despite all the rules and renunciations–or maybe because of them–these contemplatives are, to the outsider, full. It might be joy, it might be contentment. I can’t speak to what they were feeling, but I caught it. As someone who is notably lacking in joy, I noticed this. I figured that a difference lies in the fact that they chose to renounce worldly possessions and liberties. But the Catholic school girl in me knows that this act is not a choice, that people who enter this life feel a vocation, a calling to join. This is their lot as much as mine is my own. They, too, are on the labyrinth, following their path, only they have conceded to it, knowing that this is what it is, and accept the joy and enlightenment and whatever else comes with it. I just feel gratitude that my path passed by theirs, periodically.

When we visited the monastery, we opted to join the monks for their 2:15 prayer. As we entered the church area, signs informed us that this was an area of silence. As we walked along the walkway, past the cemetery, the architecture, we had to resist the urge to chat with one another. We got to the church early and decided to move from the lower level up to the balcony but had to communicate through hand gestures and eyebrows. This taught us that there are ways of communicating other than the spoken word, but we only communicated for “necessary” things. (We made it up the choirloft, although I have no idea what transpired between us.) The practice of swallowing my words and chatter gave me the smallest glimpse of the spiritual practice of silence. In the midst of the prayers, a thunderstorm crashed and clamored. When we left the church, there was still a torrential downpour. At the top of the church steps we were still in the silent area, so we gestured to one another to RUN! We ran, trying to sprint but hopping over puddles, down the walkway, through the parking lot, where we could have talked or whooped or hollered, but instead, we kept running and kept silent, swallowing our laughter. We stopped under cover of the gift shop door, catching our breath, wet, exhaling, sharing a glimpse of the joy we saw all around us.

Although I went on this utopia road trip as a scholar and teacher, the human in me could not help but admire the people we met and the historical communities we encountered. There are dreamers and righteous folk, and seekers and organizers.

And then there is my daughter, who races through mazes and, even, labyrinths, who raced from the monk’s Liturgy through the torrential rain. Her childlike exuberance is not that of the child. She knows more pain and sorrow than many adults. No, she is joyous because she knows that the world is more full of weeping than any of us can understand. She knows the worst of it, and she runs and smiles because she can, in this moment. I thought she loved hedge mazes because she felt she had the agency to conquer them. But then I realized she just runs, everywhere. She runs because there is a maze, or a path, or a downpour to dash through, and the only way for her to greet it is with joy and wonder. For her, that is the only choice.

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Dusting Up

As the therapist probed deeper and deeper, I shifted in discomfort, stared across the room, and admitted a secret,

“I would like to vacuum under that couch and clean up those fuzzies under there.”

She followed my gaze beneath the couch. She thought this was adorable. “That would be a manageable task,” she acknowledged, and then we moved on to the more intractable tasks at hand.

I get it, I act like a petulant teenager when we make progress in therapy, and I dust or vacuum while the world is crumbling around me. I found myself on the stepladder again yesterday, washing the windows. I find this defensible. I do yoga next to those windows, so it’ll be nice to let in more sunlight. Heck, I don’t have a very full social calendar, so I’ve got plenty of time for things like this….okay, that was defeatist. Must stop the negative thoughts.

I brought the stepladder out to the balcony and once the outside of the windows were clean, I left the ladder out there, because the clean windows illuminated the dirt around them. Didn’t I just clean the balcony? Nope, I did it last summer, and I never did get around to a thorough spring cleaning. Wow, I am more than a year into widowhood, now in my second summer alone. I am seasoned. I was back up there at 6:30 this morning with a handbroom, wiping away cobwebs and dirt and pollen from the ceiling and the windowframes. I restrained myself from filling a bucket of soapy water to scrub everything down and took a dog for a walk, instead. See? I know when to say when.

I know that I’m avoiding the path of pleasure and personal development, but I’ve been doing the requisite healthy activities and deriving little pleasure from them. A dusted windowsill may be the most pleasurable thing that’s happened to me lately. I feel less and less of the chaos of husband’s illness and I can see glimmers of calmness. I can see what it takes to get this place spruced up. Someday, I’m going to put this house on the market, and it’s tasks like this that I will need to do. These tasks are manageable. I can do this.

I may well dust myself out of here someday, out of this house and/or out of this funk. Too much dusting, though, and I’ll dust myself into a corner and remain here, in a lonely, miserable heap.

I won’t get invited to any 4th of July parties, but maybe I’ll invite a friend over to hang out on the balcony another night. There, therapist, are you pleased?

And of course she would shoot right back, “Are you?”

Slow Down and Pet the Doggies

When I was in grad school, my husband left the house to get some milk…and came home with an offer to get a dog. He was walking to the neighborhood grocery store, chatted with a woman, pet her dog, she said he was rescued and up for adoption and would husband like to adopt him, and that’s how we ended up with our first dog, Otis. We ended up being friends with that woman and her husband, too.

Years later my husband was dropping the kids off at school. The janitor asked if he’d like a puppy. Otis was getting on in years, so husband was interested. We all went out to the janitor’s farm and came home with both of the dogs in the litter. Otis died the following year, a loyal and grateful companion until the end. Those puppies are the two dogs we have now. 

That’s on my mind because someone recently asked how we got our dogs. It occurred to me that all of our dogs came into our lives because my husband stopped to talk to people.

Just placing this here because he doesn’t have the best reputation on this blog, or in our memories these days. But he was a kind, caring man who slowed down to connect with people, and with dogs.