Poem – Lost mothers, daughters

 

We all

are daughters

searching for our mothers.

We all

are mothers

searching for our daughters.

We all

are lost,

and have lost.

 

Sometimes our arms

have to wrap around the shoulders

of someone else, someone

we are not related to

to comfort ourselves

and to comfort them.

 

Sometimes we have to be

for each other

what we don’t have

for ourselves.

Grief shuffle

Inertia is absolutely normal and to be expected when grieving. This is a hard journey, this journey of grief. How to walk forward, when half of you is gone?

And yet we must walk forward, all of us, who have lost someone we love. We walk forward because they would want us to. We walk forward because to not do so is to die slowly, is to let that dull nothingness win.

Yes – we must sit with our grief for a time. We must make time for it, to absorb it, to let it speak to us. We must let it move through us, changing us, transforming us. How much time does it take? As much time as it does.

Consider the caterpillar in its cocoon. Consider the seed in the ground. They don’t know what they are becoming, but they are becoming. They are changing, sometimes painfully. Who would recognize them after they transform? Who would know what they had been, and how hard it was to get there? And yet they do.

And so do we.

Carrying burdens

There is a Buddhist story about a woman whose child had died. She carried him around the village in her arms, asking everyone she saw if they had medicine to help heal her child. Everyone who saw her was horrified and a little concerned about her but didn’t know how to help. One person finally suggested that she go to the teacher at the center of the village. The teacher was Buddha.

He looked at her with compassion, noticing her grief. She was carrying her dead child with her everywhere she went, desperate for help. He said “Go to every house in this village and ask every person if they’ve ever suffered from grief. If no one who lives in the house has ever experienced a death, then take a mustard seed from them, and I will make a medicine for you from those seeds.”

She did just that and discovered very quickly that every single person in the village had experienced grief in one way or another through someone they know dying or a difficult situation happening to them. All had suffered loss of some sort. She was unable to obtain any mustard seeds but she was able to obtain the medicine she needed through this exercise. She was able to accept her loss, and understand that it was no greater than anyone else’s.

We are like this when we continuously carry our burdens and we present them to others all the time.

We are like this when
we identify with our wounds.
When we describe ourselves as chronically ill
or that our parents died when we were young
or we are exiles from our homeland
or we are victims of any sort
having suffered from trauma, abuse, addiction.

When we do this, we are expecting others
to heal our wounds
forgetting that they have
similar ones,
ones that cut just as deep
and hurt just as much.

We have all suffered loss
and we all have brokenness.
Recognizing that is the medicine.

Poem – In the winter, we can see

In the winter,
we can see the bones of things.
We can see the true shapes
of the trees.
We can see where the birds
have made their homes.
We can finally see
the river that nourishes both,
that sustains.

In the winter,
we know what is what,
without any pretense,
without any show.
No more padding,
no more guile.
In the winter,
you know where you stand
and what you have
to work with.

It is like this in our lives
when the storms tear down
our defenses,
our walls,
our artifice.
Only when we have nothing
do we see what we really have
to work with.
Only when the tornado has come through,
the divorce is final,
the tragically died has been buried,
do we see what we really have,
what is our foundation.

Who knew?
We might have been building
all our hopes
on something frail,
something false.
We might have been
pinning our dreams
on something as insubstantial
as the morning mist.

It is a gift, this stripping away.

Harvest from Mercy Convent retreat, November 15th 2015

The theme of the retreat was “Autumn: A Season of New Beginnings”. The Bible reading was Mark 4:1-20 and 30-32. These are the Parables of the Sower and the Mustard Seed. Here’s my Condensed Gospel version of them:

The parable of the sower

Jesus was again teaching beside the sea. He decided to teach while sitting in a boat in the water because a large crowd had gathered around him. The crowd stood on the shore to listen to him. They had come to hear him from every town.

He taught them many things using parables, including this one: “Think about the person who went out to sow his field. While he was sowing, some seeds fell along the path and birds came and ate it. Other seeds fell where there were more rocks then soil. The seed sprang up quickly, but then withered just as quickly in the sun because it didn’t have deep roots to gather moisture. Other seeds fell among the thorn bushes and the thorns made it impossible for them to produce a crop. Yet other seeds fell on good ground and were able to produce 30, 60, even 100 times what was sown. Anyone who has ears should listen to this!”

MT 13:1-9, MK 4:1-9, LK 8:4-8

When Jesus was alone with his disciples, they came up and said to him “Why do you speak to people in parables? What does the parable of the sower mean?”
Jesus answered them “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been revealed to you but not to everyone. For them the information is transmitted in parables so that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. It says ‘They may listen but never understand, and they may look and never see. For people’s hearts have grown hard and their ears have grown deaf, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they might see, hear, and then understand and turn back, and I would heal them.'”

MT 13:10-15, MK 4:10-12, LK 8:9-10

Jesus said “Do you not understand this parable? Then how are you going to be able to understand any of them? The seed is the word of God. The sower is the one who shares it with others. The people along the path are those who have heard the message about the kingdom and don’t understand it. Satan has snatched away the words that were sown in their hearts so they would not believe and be saved.”

“As for the seed sown on rocky ground, this represents the people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. However, because they are not rooted in their faith, they believe for a little while but stumble when troubles come because of the word.”

“Regarding the seed sown among thorns, these are the people who hear the word but are distracted and paralyzed by worry and greed, and the word is not able to take root in them and produce any fruit.”

“But the seed sown on good ground represents the people who hear the word with honest and open hearts. They understand it, welcome it, and through endurance are able to bear much fruit, even up to 100 times what was sown.”

MT 13:18-24, MK 4:13-20, LK 8:11-15

The parable of the mustard seed

“How can I explain what the kingdom of God is like? What can I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed sown in the ground. It is smaller than any other seed, but when grown, it is a huge tree, taller than any plant in the garden. It becomes a tree big enough for birds to make nests in its large branches.”

MT 13:31-32, MK 4:30-32, LK 13:18-19

I’d never thought of Autumn as a time of new beginnings. To me, it was always seen as a sign of endings. It is harvest time, a time of wrapping up, of preparing against the winter that is to come. It is a beautiful time, but short-lived, and leads to a time of sparseness and lack. It is hard to fully enjoy the glory of Autumn knowing that the trees will soon be bare and ice and snow are coming.

But I like this new idea that was offered at the retreat – think of Autumn as a time to sow seeds. They have to be planted in the ground in Autumn, and rest quietly underground in darkness, in silence, unseen, in order to grow into what they are to become.

The poet Mary Oliver said “Is it not incredible that in an acorn something has hidden an entire tree?”

I saw a church sign recently that said “We can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the apples in a seed.”

Seeds are powerful things to think about.

It is also a gift to be invited to see old things in new ways.

My Mom gave me shiny pennies. My Dad gave me leaves. I’m grateful that they gave me simple things to remember them by. But interestingly, these things are both brown. I’ve been drawn to brown for a few months now, sketching with it, writing with it, painting with it, making jewelry with it. Different shades of brown – chocolate, caramel, sepia, café au lait.

I’ve been meditating on the fact that Dad was red-green color blind, so most of the time he saw nature as brown. The army green that I wear as my neutral color these days would have been brown to him. Autumn was his favorite time of the year because he could finally see colors.

While at the retreat I made some art to think about him and how he saw the Autumn world, the time when he was happiest. This is the first one I made. It is 7” x 10”.

Dad collage at Mercy 1

I was going to make a simple one on a 4 x 6 index card, but I couldn’t find them in the craft supplies so I decided to work bigger instead. I’m glad I did.

I had some leftover materials so I made a second one. They work perfectly together. It is hard to see that here, and I don’t have a larger scanner. You could click on the pictures, print them out, and put them together to see what I mean.

Dad collage at Mercy 2

While making these pieces I had quite a bit of understanding and peace come over me concerning my parents. I’m grateful I took the time to make this art, and also grateful that I was in the craft room alone so I could cry a little.

One thing I’m coming to understand is that there is great beauty in just allowing experiences to be what they are without defining them. I’m also learning that life is richer if it is a blend of things – for instance, happy/sad/wistful/grieving/hopeful is a valid feeling, even though we don’t have a word for it. Just like with Autumn leaves, they are more beautiful if they are a range of colors – reds, greens, yellow, orange, brown – all on the same tree, and often on the same leaf.

It was a gift from my Dad’s spirit that when we happened to take his ashes to scatter, it was the peak of Autumn in the mountains. This is where I sat to disperse his ashes, some 20 years after he had died.

GM 10 2015 a

GM 10 2015 c

GM 10 2015 d

GM 10 2015 e

GM 102015 b

You know where you stand with Autumn.
Not tall, not short.
But between.
Between life and death,
awakening and slumber,
the present and the future,
the known and the unknown.
Autumn is a time of harvests, of reaping
yet also sowing, of planting.
Hardy bulbs planted now sleep deeply,
hibernate like mother bears,
deep underground,
in darkness,
in silence,
in stillness.
Both awake in spring,
with flowers, with cubs,
new growth, new life
out of that stillness,
that silence,
that darkness.

We too are called into that cave, that tomb, that dark earth into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We too are called into quiet, into stillness, so the seeds that God has planted within us can grow.

I thought it was over.

My father, dead these twenty years, not buried but filed away in a niche like a folder, forgotten it turns out, not over and done with. I thought it was over, that time of shock / of loss / of surprise / of earthquake, after tornado. He died just six weeks after Mom did, no warning, just a heart attack, his heart gave out / his heart had died when she did. It took six weeks for him to realize it. Six weeks for his body to catch up with his spirit.

It isn’t “passed on”. It isn’t “transitioned”. It isn’t soft and gentle, these euphemisms we have for the end of life. It isn’t even “kick the bucket”, “bought the farm”, “pushing up daisies”. It is dead, plain and simple.

Dead, body shucked off like a used coat, abandoned, sent to Goodwill or the dump. Or perhaps not. Sometimes it shows back up, even though you’ve moved, even though you’ve outgrown it, that person, their shell, shows up like that coat, somehow back in your house.

To get to the niche required asking off from work, calling the funeral home, arranging with the funeral director, getting a notarized form from my aunt (for the other two), finding a map, cleaning out the car, a long drive, and then waiting in the reception room, the same where I waited all those years ago with my aunt, to put her Mom’s ashes next to his, the same where we waited for his father, the same place I sat three times before for death. There were cookies on the table, wrapped in plastic bags, to keep them fresh. They don’t get a lot of visitors there, but they like to be ready. A lady asked if we would like water, or a fresh cup of coffee. She didn’t mind, she said. No bother, she said.

He died maybe seven years before his mom did, at least twenty years too soon. I remember her, my grandmother, in shock that her son had died before her. Sitting in her room in that rambling house. He died just five feet away, in his old room, that dark room, that narrow room. No room for him, and he died there, alone.

I can’t find the Bible with her dates in it. I don’t know when she died, or when she was born. Each family has their own, it seems. It wasn’t important enough to keep in a safe place, it seems.

They sat together, all these years, in niche number 19, at the end of a series of halls, themselves filled with filing cabinets stuffed with folders and notes. They sat, filed away, together – this was the O’Shee clan, the last of the line. I’d changed my name at marriage, not even keeping it as a middle name. People could spell it or pronounce it, but not both, and not well either way. I was grateful to get an easy name, but not as easy or anonymous as Smith or Jones. There are worse names than one with an apostrophe.

Nobody went into that room at the end of the hall. The relatives, those who knew them, were dead and buried themselves, or long forgotten. It was a funeral home, not a columbarium. They had that room as a favor to another funeral home that went out of business. I’d never thought of it, but funeral homes do go out of business, but cemeteries don’t. (But sometimes they do). Sometimes your “Final resting place” isn’t so final, and isn’t such a rest.

Sometimes people get dug up, like Tutankhamen, or the Lindow man, or anonymous Indians. There’s a farm to be tilled or a skyscraper to be built. The markers were lost or never were. Sometimes strangers in masks and latex gloves carefully desecrate your body, your insides, in the name of science. I wonder if a kind person, a priest perhaps, asks forgiveness (if not permission) of the soul that wore that body like a costume, a shroud, for these unbelievers, these scientists, to excavate, exhume, ex everything. No more sacred slumber. No more resting in peace. More like pieces.

I thought it was over, that time of grief, of sadness. I thought he was “dead and buried”. But now he’s in my craft room, on the top of my shelving unit I bought with my own money and assembled with my own hands. The shelving unit that has books to teach me, to inspire me to make things along with the things needed to make those things. There’s my father, along with the rubber stamps, the beads, the canvases, the paint, the glue, the wire. There he is, another craft project or supply or inspiration.

Perhaps I should invite him into the book project I’m working on. Perhaps I should do it in his memory, in his honor, like the Jews do. When someone dies too soon, you finish their work for them, giving them credit. You do the work, but they inspire you. Your grief for them propels / compels you to work. It isn’t yours but not quite theirs, it is a collaboration, a sharing. Instead of being stunned and immobilized by your grief, you use it to do, to create, to make. It is a kind of martial arts, this thing, using the energy of a sad situation against itself, a sort of energy aikido, a trauma taekwondo.

I thought it was over.

I didn’t have the tools to deal with his death when it happened. I just did it, as best I could figure out. There is no training for the hardest time of your life. How do you suddenly take on the responsibility of cremation certificates and funeral plots and closing out bank accounts and estate taxes and probate in the middle of grief? The person you’d ask for advice is the very person who is gone.

It has been twenty years, and my father is still with me, not just in spirit but in form, in shape, taking up space in my craft room, watching everything I do. I suspect he’s still a little sad. He was always sad. He never got to do what he wanted – always what his parents wanted. “Poor Pat” is what his Mom said to him. All he heard was how sad it was to be him. So he grew into that prophecy. It is sad that they didn’t want him to be him – even his name wasn’t his own. He was a junior. How is that for messing with your child? A child named like this isn’t his own. They are expected from birth to take on your task and live it out, rather than their own.

So here he is, in my craft room, in my house.

When I was born, he made a point of going into the house before Mom did and putting Beethoven on the turntable. Beethoven’s music was playing as I was brought home. This time, I wasn’t paying attention, and my husband wasn’t thinking, so when he was brought into the house, this time, this (hopefully) final time, there was no music, there was no notice. His ashes were brought in along with his parents, without ceremony and without ritual. Brought in just like the luggage.

I don’t even know if I have any Beethoven music to play here for him. It always makes me sad, how he didn’t get to be a music conductor, how he didn’t let himself be one. I need to listen to it, and be sad, and let that feeling happen, that loss, that sadness, let the tears fall heavy like glue, sticking together the past and the present into one big mess.

If I don’t have a CD, I’m sure I can download some on my phone. Where to start? What was his favorite? Why don’t I know?

We are now planning an early trip to the mountains. I feel that opening his urn on the bridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains is what I want to do. Open it up and let them fly on a windy day, so his ashes cover those mountains. When I see them, I’ll think of him. No marker, no cemetery. Mountains, miles and miles of them, a sea of blue waves in the distance, fading fading fading away. Hopefully it will be windy. We’ll have to do this after the tourists have gone, after the rangers have checked on us. We always have permission to be there after hours, but I’m going on the “don’t ask don’t tell” for the ashes. Just like how I did with Mom’s. There was a little bit of covert action then too.

No roadside memorial. No press-on decal on the back of the car. No tattoos. All the myriad ways of memorializing, and I’m going on a roadtrip, with three people and coming back with two. One will be left in the mountains, on the mountains, part of the mountains. His ashes – ground up bones, really, not ashes like in a campfire – will be eaten by insects, worn by birds in their feathers, sunk down to the bottom of small pools of rainwater, used in rabbit’s burrows.

We’d not planned on going until May, but then this happened, this urn, this death, reappeared in my life. Like a pregnancy unplanned, an extra family member is suddenly in my house, my home. Am I dumping him at a shelter, leaving him on a church doorstep, an orphanage by doing this early and not waiting until we would usually go? Am I properly dealing with this unexpected appearance, reappearance, of my father in my life?

Or by planning a trip, am I making sure that I use this time well, to talk with/to/at him, to invite him in, to process this grief, this loss I couldn’t hold, couldn’t handle twenty years ago?

Is there a right way to grieve? Is there a wrong way? Perhaps simply, the way is the way.

The picture is of him as a different kind of conductor. He spent one summer driving the electric trolley at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. One childhood dream come true. The smile is tiny, but there. His smile was often an afterthought, an accident, a surprise.

Dad at the Choo Choo

He spent way too much of his life making other people happy. Not selfish, certainly, and that is commendable, but no balance either. Such loss. Such pain. I wish he was here now so I could teach him what I know, to help him deprogram and discover who he really is. Perhaps that is what I am doing in his memory. Perhaps I am using his (bad / sad ) example of how not to live, and learning how.

He never wrote that book on Beethoven. He never traveled to England. He never did a lot of things he wanted to do. Never retired. And I see this, and remember – never take a day for granted. Never assume there is tomorrow.

But now, I’m learning, he’s teaching me, never assume the past is past either.