Monday, September 28, 2009

Sometimes something does help

I've been thinking of Janet Dallett's "When the Spirits Come Back" which is a great little book about depression. It helped me through a long one, years ago. I remember it being about acceptance of the malady, sinking into that reality, feeling what you feel and sitting with it until you come out the other side. I'd better read it again because I know it's much more involved than that. And just as surely I know that this is not that kind of depression. It's a low place in my road, for certain, but it feels like a natural and necessary response to grief.

Writing about it and having friends respond is helping me a lot. I realized when I was very ill a year and a half ago, that, though I live alone, I am not alone. I am living in community with generous and loving people who take time to notice, to read, to hear, to sense and to respond. And the notes from those loving people have helped me, help me still. To hell with puritan ideals. To hell with being stoic. It's harder, in a way, to risk seeming weak or damaged and say that you hurt. That's what I've been doing, in person and here, and I don't think what I'm getting in return is pity. What I feel come back to me is understanding and empathy and loving support. This is a way to grow. By listening to what others share with me, I may be able to learn how to live with the pain of deep loss. It's been a good choice to skip some dinners out, to stay home more, to skip the film festival - listening to the voice that says "be quiet, still, wait a while." Just as it is healthy to walk the dog and to buy the bargain little kayak at the church sale. Clearly I am not in a deep depression if I am able to remember and act on the things I know are good for me.

So of course I said yes when a friend invited me to go to Seattle on Sunday. I'd been avoiding crowds in my own town but I said yes to this offer because I knew it would be good for me. I let go of some responsibility, worked a little harder to be able to leave my animals in comfort and security for a few more hours than usual, and I went. We ate blueberries and talked as we drove to the ferry. There were crowds of people on the ferry and the street, but not a crowd of those who know me or might want to talk with me about this or that: I did not have to be present for anyone or focus on any particular topic. My friend is a close one and he was not going to press me to talk.

We got to the museum early and found our way to the Wyeth exhibit. We had very different responses to the work but I felt fine in my own skin, sinking into what I was seeing and feeling and drawing nourishment from those canvasses. I have an ability, which serves me well, to enjoy what is and still want more. I love Wyeth's realism and light played against a certain hard perspective. On the other hand, I wanted to tell him "paint your wife's face too! DON'T pull a hat over it and say that makes the painting better! It doesn't! And the dog is too far away from her. I don't think the dog would sit that far away." So what happened there? I was enlivened, engaged, brought out of myself, and further in, all at once. Art is powerful stuff. I took my time with it so that I have a lot of details in my memory from sitting with those works, little tidbits I can pull up and think about when I am hungry again.

Walking to the Imogen Cunningham exhibit we lingered a while over some modern sculpture. One called "The Beggar" pulled my heart right out of my chest. It's hard to describe the ache I felt looking at the seated, stretching forward beggar, his hand extended, at that moment, just to me. I wanted to put my hands on his back, say "sit up, let me look in your face and know you." I have always had this yearning to touch sculpture when I see one that moves me. It's almost like the pull at the top of Niagara, but without the fear. It's pure longing. And then we were at the Cunningham exhibit. At first I thought "these are rather dark. How interesting that she cropped them this way. I have photos better than these." And then, of course, I began to see them for the time and place they were made in and that she was extraordinary and I opened up and let my critical mind take a back seat and finally I saw the all of it. The beautiful candids of children playing on concrete sidewalks; the famous people brought to human light. Steiglitz' slyly shifted eyes as he stood before O'Keefe's Black Iris. Which famous men were open and filled with energy, which were hiding, stoic before the lense. And I gasped in surprise and delight to see her magnolia, so incredibly close (f64) and detailed and un-flowerlike, as if what I call a magnolia is really a more highly evolved being or world.

After that exhibit, I felt satisfied with what I'd taken in and my friend said he did too. We walked to an Indian restaurant I've enjoyed many times and ate some good food. Then we walked in the sunshine a while and went on to the theater where we saw a loud and passionate play about football, family love and war. It was a little like being hit by a truck. We didn't really enjoy most of it. Afterward, we walked to the market and Beecher's cheese shop where my friend bought some wonderful aged cheddar and blue cheeses and quince paste and we watched the cheese makers at work behind the glass wall. As we started to walk to the ferry he reminded me that we had bought cookies at a bakery there before and stopped so I could see what they had. I got a "monster" gluten free cookie which I'd completely forgotten existed, and he got a small cookie as well. A pleasant walk to the ferry left me okay to deal with being in the huge crowd of sports fans as we boarded.

Arriving on the other side of the water early, I suggested a stop at a little place I like on the water and my friend, who'd never been there, went straight to my favorite item on the menu, which involved a thoughtful screening on his part as he's not a vegetarian. I'd thought we were just stopping for a glass of wine but we shared the Sweet Papas Latina and some red wine and talked there next to the surreal water, painterly in the evening light, and even saw two otters swimming. As we'd done once before, we talked so amiably that we lost track of time and, though we had been early on our schedule, found ourselves now late. We had a day of living in our moments and taking in the world around us on what he kept teasing me was "our last perfect day."

Grief and sadness. We have to go through it and through it and through it and find a way to live with the reality of death. Some days, like Friday and Saturday just past, I will feel like there is no salve for these wounds. But here's the thing: I knew even then that I was not alone with it. Since my mother died, a few people - some of them total strangers - have taken a moment to look me in the eye and in the heart and tell me some small thing they remember from their experience after their mother died. The most recent one, from a new friend, echoes my most common feeling after death. It' a variation on feeling that the deceased is going to walk through the door at any moment. She finds that on Sundays she still wants to call her mom. That happens with me, though on random days, as I had to call many times to catch mom in her room. She was often "downstairs" as she put it, though the facility was on one level. She'd be playing bingo, visiting with friends, taking in concerts and such. Now, as then, I'll be walking along the Larry Scott Trail with Shadow and reach for my cell phone to call her. We had so many sweet little conversations the months before her stroke and death. So many times I reminded her of how I see her in my daily life, my choices, my best behaviors. So many times I told her she was a good woman, a good mother and that I admired and loved her. Two weeks ago I reminded myself to get a birthday card and gift in the mail to her so they wouldn't be late - then I remembered she was already gone. On her birthday someone happened to ask me how old my mom had been when she died. "She would have been," I began, " ....oh, she would have been" Tears come into my eyes at these moments. The other day after I learned that my friends' dog Willie had died, I got in the shower and sobbed, then realized that I had no idea who I was crying for at that moment.

I feel much more peaceful tonight. The museum was exactly what I needed today, and sharing it with a friend was perfect. That sculpture of the beggar gave me somewhere to put some of this ache. Art is wonderful that way, isn't it? It gives and it gives us a place where our feelings can resonate and deepen. And it does all that without any chance of our being misunderstood or pitied in the process. Our friends, our people, our community - trusting our hearts to them is a bigger risk. Yet I don't live in the museum. This grieving time creates a good lesson for me, an extension of the lessons from the time when I was so ill and frightened of dying. My friend Carolyn said it best when she was in her final month of life: "I tell you, when you're sick you need community! When you're in a foxhole of any sort, be it literally in a war or figuratively sitting homeless on a rooftop in New Orleans, it's not rugged individuality you need!"

Sometimes something does help. You do. Thanks!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sometimes nothing helps

Today it all hit me. All the losses of the past couple of months and the echos of those further back piled into me as if I'd braked too suddenly in traffic. I don't know why. I think it began coming on last night and today I just couldn't shake it. Even getting up early, going to the church rummage sale, third in line, and buying a great little kayak for $125 didn't break the flow of what's going on inside me. I tried thinking about places I'd go in the kayak. I looked online for a spray skirt for it. I took Shadow down to the Larry Scott trail by the water between the boatyard and the mill and we walked through a picture perfect blue sky day with soft lines of white clouds trimming the sky over the water. Nothing helped. I just plain feel sad.

I walked through my world today like some alien, invisible visitor. I've been missing mom, wishing I could call her. I've been missing my sons and tried calling each of them last night but both were in their cars and unable to talk. That's when something shook loose, I think, and the sorrow just overwhelmed me. A happy dog, pleasant people, beautiful surroundings - none of it mitigated the low that took hold of me.

The annual film festival is this weekend. Last year I raced around to 11 movies over the weekend and loved it. This year I haven't wanted to even go down and try to get into one film. I'd like to see a lot of them but I don't actually want to go now and be with people. I can't fathom focusing on it, acting like everything's okay. My heart is aching. And after helping to bury my dear friends' dog this week and being told there's no hope for my now oldest cat, Lucy, I am reminded that love means heartache, eventually, every time.

So how do we stay open? How do we keep loving and stay engaged in our lives, knowing that death and sorrow and partings will just keep coming, more often, the older we all get? Right this minute I'm picturing my mother, moments after her death, peaceful at last, with two of her friends, one seated on either side of her, looking straight ahead while each held one of her hands. My sister and I took in those lingering moments and promised remembrance. We and Mom's friends were honoring the transition of a life and we took it into our own lives one last time.

Remembering that moment does help me now. It's not like traffic. It's not like it all came to a screeching, unexpected halt and I was thrown from the car. True, some of these losses have been unexpected but many have not been. The price of loving is ultimately letting go but none of us are ready to do it most of the time.

I was not ready for my friends Carolyn and Loretta to die a few years ago. Or Bill Dunning's suicide. Or for the startling suicide of my neighbor Mike, who made sure I was there so he would not be alone when he pulled the trigger. Those were all traumatic endings. But Mom, my neighbors Ray and Marjorie, all were in their 80's and we can't any of us be shocked by their leaving. Still, death is a challenging thing to accept. We feel disloyal to the dead if we are ready or accepting of their death. And the longer we have someone to love the harder it is to let them go.

If I can rise up from the mourning, then lay back down into it as I need to, knowing I will get up again, maybe this very intense period of loss will teach me some grace and I'll get a little further down my own path towards acceptance and gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for, having had the chance to know and learn from and love so many people and lovely animal friends too.

Tomorrow a friend is taking me to Seattle to the art museum. We'll see Imogen Cunningham's photos and Andrew Wyeth's paintings. Maybe I'll fill myself up again and feel nourished. Maybe it will be a day when I reconnect, for a while at least.