Monday, January 22, 2007

Masquerading Sadness

Photo: Jonathan with his regular order - a bacon cheeseburger

When we're tender from tragedy, grief wears many disguises. One can attend a function on auto-pilot and have concerned friends misinterpret it as "handling this so well." We can get annoyed with one another for not intuiting our needs. And anger can crack like a whip over seemingly trivial things.

The early days of grieving were marked with much confusion and little activity, and so it may have been an act of insanity to attempt anything so bold as an outing with the kids. But in a misguided move toward normalcy, Mom and I struck out one day, only two weeks after my dad's death, to take the grandkids to see a movie.

I didn't have the mindfulness thing quite down yet at that point, it was much too early. With time, I've become more discerning in discovering the triggers we all have, and therefore can back up and mend fences before the cows run amok. Most times. On the movie day, though, I let a simple thing turn into something big and ugly.

Hungry but not in the mood to cook, we stopped for sub sandwiches after the movie. A video gaming shop was next door, so Jonathan gave a quick order and the older kids left to browse gaming shelves while we picked up the food. My mother and I made our executive ordering decisions (we had five more at home to feed, in addition to our movie-going group) and ordered four big sandwiches, one of which was similar to what Jonathan asked for.

The dinner time was a loud affair, with mom cutting fruit, me cutting sandwiches, and the kids tossing all the couch pillows on the floor for some jumping. I served Jonathan his sandwich slice and even picked off the tomato since I knew he'd frown at it. Well, the sandwich had some kind of sauce spread on it and he complained it wasn't what he'd asked for. So I began offering all sorts of remedies. I'll scrape the sauce off. I'll get different bread. I have ham in the fridge and will make a new sandwich. But he continued to explain, tearfully and red-faced, that this wasn't what he'd asked for.

I wasn't angry or frustrated, and I was lovingly "fixing" the problem. Well, he refused to eat the sandwich, refused my offers for something different, and decided not to eat anything at all.

Jonathan's grandpa had died, unexpectedly, three weeks before. We were all extraordinarily fragile right then. Jonathan hadn't eaten any food before dinnertime on one single day since my father had died. And this movie-sub sandwich outing was our first venture back into life outside our dark grief. And I ordered the wrong damn sub.

When I told an acquaintance about it, who had, incidentally, just lost her daughter to cancer, she said, "I've been taking many, many deep breaths and reminding myself ***DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY!*** and soon it's really not about the sandwich anymore, it's just sadness leaking out disguised as anger and frustration."

I went to Jonathan and I held him and told him I was sorry I didn't order the sandwich he'd asked for. I'd made a mistake. I should have ordered the right one. He said, "Ok" and we were better. Not fixed, but better.

It might sound crazy, but if it wasn't for the amazing insights I glean from people further down the path than I, people who help me see how even - or especially - the slightest change in perspective can improve our lives, that scenario would've ended much differently. That night, Jonathan had one of his worst nights yet, coming to bed with me, choking back tears, saying he couldn't sleep, didn't feel well, and fidgeting late into the night. Everything makes a difference. And that day's lesson woke me up.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dear Watcher

Today, as I was working on a column to submit to a magazine, I needed to find an old column I'd written. So I went to Brady's computer (my old computer) to find them. This activity, of course, led me WAY off-course, as I read through old documents and got lost in the memories. One delightful little tidbit I came upon was a letter I wrote to my "Watcher" - that nasty naysayer who lives inside my head. You know the one... The Voice who tells me I'm not good enough to be a writer. The well-disguised 'distractor' who pulls me away from my focus.

I find the letter to be still relevant, though thankfully less so. I believe it was a writing assignment from "The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity " - a book by Julia Cameron. I highly recommend it if you have any sort of creative block. (Or even if you don't.)

I had something similar hung above my computer for a while, a reminder to stop worrying and fretting and to just do it. Finding this letter was an interesting opportunity to think about my watcher, see if it has the same hold on me. I'm happy to say it doesn't. It's still there, but I'm more apt to knock that shameless naysayer smack upside the head. Who is your watcher? What would you say to it?

Dear Watcher,

I’m not even sure what to say to you, because I’m not sure yet that I write often enough for you to get a good hold of me. Or maybe it’s you I’m grappling with, who tightens the feeling around my neck when I can’t write about something, who keeps me away from the computer and busy doing laundry and floor sweeping and other tasks that seem more important but are really just an excuse.

Perhaps you wouldn’t mind leaving me alone for awhile. I mean, you just made me go back and delete that extra space in the word awhile, between the ‘a’ and the ‘w’, even though I’m supposed to be writing stream of consciousness and not worrying about editing. I know it’s because I’m on a computer and it’s easier to go back quickly. But I think that during these exercises I’m supposed to just go on, and not edit. So if you would, please, settle down – we can edit later.

I would also appreciate it if you would not be so hard on me when I read the work of another. You immediately start telling me that I’m not nearly as good as that writer, that I don’t have a grasp on any subject like those others writers do, that I have no expertise in any area that would give me permission to write about it. I know all those things and it makes it worse that you confirm them. Why don’t you kindly nudge me to try anyway? Why don’t you tell me that perhaps I can tackle a subject in a different way, a way that might grab different people from the ones who are reading the "competitor’s" work? And why did you just use the word competitor? That’s crazy. We don’t need to see it like that any more.

Please don’t expect me to grasp the ‘wow’ of a passage and get to it on the first attempt. Writers have gone raving mad while trying to write, get their deepest thoughts out, make their best story gel together. Why should I have any less of a time with it? Of course I’m going to screw it up more often than not. Do you think painters or potters are any different? Do you think they pump out perfection each time they work? Isn’t it a constant journey toward betterment, but never achieving perfection?

You need to allow me to write more often, and you need to stop telling me that laundry and dishes are more important, because they’re not. They’ll still be there later, but my spark of an idea for a column or story may not. You need to remind me to carry my notebook with me so I can jot down those ideas that came to me all week but didn’t write down because I was thinking like a writer but not acting like one yet. You need to support me in the attempt and not be so hard on me when I write nothing but drivel. And you need to focus on me, not on others. I am having trouble justifying my need to write and I need someone in my corner, not adding to my fears.

If you could try a little harder, well, that would be lovely.

Warm regards,

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Word Cloud

Here's my word cloud from, where they search my blog for the most oft-used words.... Fun!


Photo: Lone Tree that caught Brady's eye

As I sat down to write this morning, I found my time taken up instead by perusing old writings. I have several book beginnings (but no books), many journal entries, and columns written for newsletters, magazine submissions, and this blog. Reading through my writings on grief, I was taken back to the earliest days and the heaviness of that time. I'm grateful I penned much of it, because already I'd forgotten some things. I only wish I'd written more, and more often. It is good to remember.

Somehow, that's a difficult thing for me. I can recall emotions and feelings and senses about things, but not necessarily the particulars. Those are better kept by journaling - if only I'd stick with it more regularly. One particular journal entry I titled, "Expressions." I share some of it now for the beauty it contains, a small memory of the kids and some ways they processed their own grief during the intense, early days.

"My life is a topsy-turvy inner struggle right now, as I shut out the world and wrestle with the demons death has rained upon me. I'm having incredible dreams, and so many thoughts are visiting, so many things to ponder, memories to revisit, new feelings and experiences and perspectives to absorb and sit with... I feel like I've shed my old skin, and it will be amusing to see what my new skin looks like in time. For now, I am home - tending my mother, making muffins, barely getting dressed, and screening my calls. I feel like I'm visiting every ounce of sadness I've ever known, and taking the long rest that I've needed for a long, long time.

The kids' expressions of grief have been incredibly moving and powerful, even when they seem simple. My niece Ana (7) wrote a letter to my mom asking if she should sleep with her, and she drew a picture of grandma alone in bed and wrote "Lonely Grandma" above it. Niece Maddie (4) drew a picture of her and Papa John, with hundreds of tears streaming down their cheeks and onto the ground, even though she had declared, "Everyone is crying for Papa so I'm not going to cry." My son Brady (13) says he has conversations with his grandpa, and feels comfort in hearing his voice. He also decided to play basketball because Papa John had just taught him how to shoot baskets, 4 days before he died, and told Brady he is a natural. And my son Jonathan (9), true to his quirkiness, picked all the hard-boiled egg pieces out of his tuna sandwich, formed them into a sad face on his plate, and said, "This is my face ever since Papa John died."

I worry about my mother, and that gives me reason to rise in the morning and something to tend to. She is so scared and lost. There is no place where Dad's absence isn't deeply felt - he was everywhere, very very present. Funny, we used to complain about it.

Dad was quite the busy-butt, and he was *everywhere*. So his absence is so great and obvious and painful. There were 2,000 people at his visitation! I met people whose names I'd heard my entire life, since Dad was quite the storyteller. I only wish I'd met them under different circumstances, of course.
Oh how Dad would've loved all his favorite people in one spot. He was a tried and true extrovert, who loved everyone he met. So many people said to me that Dad was the only person who ever treated them like they were human beings. The outpouring of love and sentiments and stories has been very healing, and very surprising. I knew Dad knew many people, but really.... "

The days have grown a bit easier, finally... the highs get a little higher each time, while the lows catch me more and more by surprise when they strike. The other day I attended a conflict resolution session, sure to be rife with emotion. I was fine up until the moment I walked in, when I suddenly felt very weepy. It seems I can operate if things are on an even keel, but if I have to dig into anything, it slices me wide open. This fragility is difficult.

And on we press.