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Day 327/365 “The Air a Library”

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my father.

Sometimes these thoughts wrap me in a blanket of melancholy. Other times they bring on a smile or even an audible laugh.

The stupidest things remind me of him – like my daughter asking me if I ever saw “Bedtime for Bonzo” (she was reading about Ronald Reagan). I never did see it, I told her, but Papa used to say that all the time as he corralled me up to bed…“Bedtime for Bonzo!” 

I don’t recall whether that expression was met with a giggle or a groan…but I remember him saying it…I can hear him saying it…with a grin.

Last weekend we got together for a family dinner at my mother’s house. All together there were eight adults, nine children and two dogs. It was a beautiful evening and everyone was outside. The children and dogs were running around in the late afternoon sun. As we sat there in one of my father’s favorite places – the terrace, under the wisteria vines – I just had a feeling that we were all thinking about dad.

Sometimes when this happens, I’ll bring a voice to it – I’ll say, “I really miss him.” 

Other times I feel it’s better to just sit with that sensation – that he is in the air all around us. We don’t have to say it out loud. It just is. 

I have the hardest time explaining how it feels sometimes – the sensation of missing someone so much, yet simultaneously feeling as though he is everywhere, permeating everything…especially in that house, on that terrace. 

I know those of you who have lost a loved one know what I mean…

They never really cease to be…HERE.

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I just finished a book yesterday…one of those books you are sad to finish. Below is an excerpt that I have read over and over and over…because it explains so perfectly this sensation of which I speak….

“Torrents of text messages, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of email, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters and metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefore and Evian, and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again. I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail, and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths? That [they] might harry the sky in flocks like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.” – excerpt from All The Light We Cannot See

I asked one of my girls to read the above passage to me as I typed it out for you. When we were finished I asked her if she understood what it meant. She said no, so I explained it to her…

If we are constantly surrounded by words and information and messages of love that we cannot see…can’t we also believe that the souls and the words of the dead may also be swirling around us, all the time?

I could tell she found the idea of it a bit unsettling…that the souls of the dead are flying and flowing all around us.

I can understand that, especially if you imagine some of the less pleasant souls making their rounds, but…

To me, because of my father, it feels like love…everywhere…

“If you listen closely enough…”

“They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.”

…the air a library…

Just…poetry.

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Day 326 Radical Empathy

I’m sorry.

Such a powerful phrase…except lately, in relation to my children, hearing it has been making me feel…

Panic.

Let me backtrack.

I believe in the power of a heartfelt apology. It can be healing both for the person receiving it and for the person offering it.

It can also be hollow…we all know that.

At the preschool where I work, we never force the children to apologize. We model a compassionate response. We model sincerity and empathy, but we don’t force the children to say something they aren’t feeling. We are of the opinion that this does not bring forth authentic caring. Sometimes it can even teach children that they can do whatever they want, as long as they offer that magic phrase….even if the words are called out over their shoulder as they run off to greener pastures.

If a child hurts another child, the teacher will say (in the presence of the “doer”) –

“I am so sorry you got hurt. How can we help?”

Sometimes just acknowledging the hurt makes a child brighten. Other times the teacher may have the child who did the hurting go retrieve an ice pack or a band-aid for their friend. The child may even spontaneously offer a hug.

We find this approach to be much more effective in teaching true compassion. Eventually, children learn to say they are sorry on their own…and they mean it.

I employ this technique in my own home, too.

I have found that when given the time to cool down, my girls come around to apologizing on their own. I am also cognizant of offering my own apologies when warranted. Sometimes I eff up, you guys. (I know, it’s shocking). I want my girls to see that I know I am not infallible. I apologize for using an unnecessarily harsh tone, or for saying something insensitive, or for forgetting something important…and I mean it.

I want them to know that there is no shame in an authentic apology. In fact, it can be an act of bravery, humility, and integrity.

img_6190Back to where I’ve been triggered as of late.

One of my children has been a bit more…moody lately. {Sweetheart, if you’re ever reading this, please know that I totally get it. No judgement.}

She has been a bit surly, and not always for a particular reason, except…adolescence. She has been holding onto hurts longer, and taking out anger she is feeling toward one person or event, on the world as a whole…or at least “the world” that is our home. Sometimes she has no idea why she’s mad/sad (she has literally said – I don’t know why I feel this way right now).

Sometimes, she is radiant…but other times…when she gets stuck in this place…well, it’s like a dark cloud settles over the house.

For an empathetic person, this cloud is hard to be under. It can be intense. Her sister becomes heavily weighed upon by these sister-storms. What happens then is, she says,

“I’m sorry.”

What’s wrong with that, you may ask.

It is this…

She takes responsibility for her sister’s feelings. She blames herself, even though she doesn’t know why. Even though she didn’t do anything wrong, she feels responsible.

Therein lies the trigger. 

Hearing her apologize for someone else’s feelings, mood, behavior, demeanor…

Making it her fault. 

Hearing my daughter do this is KILLING. ME.

It’s a special kind of hell seeing your children adopt behaviors of yours which make you feel ashamed.

I know for me this blame-taking via I’m sorry is something I have struggled with my whole life, especially during the unhappy years of my marriage. I recognize it now as part extreme sensitivity to negative emotions, and part (Ahem…a BIG part) insecurity… 

 

I am NOT ENOUGH to keep this from happening.

Wait – is that insecurity, or is it…ARROGANCE?

As the kids say, “Oh, SNAP.”

(They probably don’t say that anymore, but whatever.)

Why is it so hard for us to allow others to sit in their own…stuff? Why do we internalize other people’s feelings? Why do we make it a reflection on us…on our possible shortcomings as sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers…humans?

So the next time it happened – this blame-taking via I’m sorry on the part of my daughter – I asked her,

Why are you sorry?”

 

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just feel bad that she seems really mad and I don’t know why. I feel like I must have done something wrong.”

Mmmhmmm.

What is equally fascinating to me is that this unfounded apologizing makes her sister – the one “in the mood” – so irritated. She yells,“You don’t even know what you are apologizing for!”

Isn’t that interesting? She isn’t even looking for someone to blame.

Let me be clear. I want my children to be compassionate. I like that my daughter notices when her sister is having a bad day/hour/moment. The question is, how can I teach her to be empathetic without taking responsibility for her sister’s feelings?

I think it would be perfectly sincere for her to say she’s sorry that her sister is hurting. Like the preschool teacher who is sorry a child got hurt (even though it wasn’t the teacher’s fault). After all, not being to blame doesn’t make her less capable of compassion about the pain. She could also ask, just in case…whether she has done something to upset her sister…but also be prepared to accept NO for an answer.

Whoa – to have empathy without making it about us. 

Radical, I tell you.

Radical empathy.

 

 

 

 

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Day 325/365 Let There Be Color

This weekend we celebrated my mother’s birthday. I told her I’ve never been happier to celebrate someone’s birthday…and that’s the truth.

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While still mourning my father, the idea that my mother might not survive breast cancer this year was a very real and visceral fear for all of us.  Coming around to her birthday – cancer free – was truly something to celebrate. 

I got to thinking this morning about something I read once, somewhere…it was something to the effect of…

What would you do differently if you knew you were dying? Well, guess what…YOU ARE.

We are ALL dying. 

Not to be grim [smirk].

The truth is, we are all inching toward death, every day. Of course, some of us have a lot longer to go than others. Sadly, this doesn’t necessarily have as much to do with age as we’d like to think.

Sure, we can take precautions; be smart. We can eat healthy, exercise, manage our stress, try our best not to run with scissors…but beyond that we don’t have much control over our ultimate fate.

So…live every moment as if it’s your last!

Hmm.

I am not going to say that.

I have had enough hard knocks over the past couple of years to understand how unrealistic that is…and I am not going to shame myself for my emotions. Sometimes we get hit hard, and we reel from it. If I have a day when I just want to crawl back under the covers and hide…and that is even remotely possible to do that day…I am going to go for it. I am not going to force myself to savor the day because it may be my last.

True contentment and joy are not forced. They are arrived at with grace.

Grace for ourselves, and for everyone else…even, or especially, the people who challenge us.

Grace is not always an easy place to land.

Sometimes it means processing our reactions – not stuffing them down under the guise of perpetually enjoying the moment!

Sometimes, we need time…space…perspective.

So…if we can’t possibly enjoy every moment, yet we are aware that the number of moments we are granted is never truly known…where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us in a place where we have to learn to appreciate the full experience of our humanity. We can allow ourselves to experience ALL of what it means to be human,  and get to a place where there is no shame in it.

No shame in feeling angry, sad, jealous, afraid –

And then…

Learning to release it...because we can’t stay there.

An image comes to me of an abstract painting. Can you imagine a piece of art that could convey all of the emotion of your life –

No identifiable images – JUST COLORS.

How would it look?

Would you want the painting of your life to be monochromatic?

Not me.

I’d want it all to be there – messy and spilling out over the entire canvas – the light, the dark, the passion, the fear, the joy...

I imagine if you look closely, analytically, you could see the detail of each emotion, both the subtle and the dramatic shifts in hue.  The colors would weave toward and away from each other…often overlapping…one spilling into the next.

Then, if you were to stand back from it…when you take in the piece as a whole…

You would truly see it.

The whole me;

My whole life.

You would see all of the messy layers aren’t random. In fact, they come together to evoke one very palpable and permeating emotion –

LOVE.

Let there be color.

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Day 324/365 A Warm Pocket

It has been happening bit by bit…this change… 

My soon to be twelve-year-old daughter has one tentative foot into her adolescence, and one foot still carefully positioned in the land of childhood. Her dirty converse high tops straddle them both, not entirely belonging in either…existing in the in-between.

The metaphor I so readily conjure is that of a butterfly…

The green and gold chrysalis that has housed her – protected her – has now become translucent, allowing a first look inside at the transformed being that is to come. This beautiful creature must soon emerge, becoming more and more constrained within the space that has kept her safe and warm.

She is nearly ready to stretch her wings.

Part of me dreads the impending disconnection between us; my inevitable decline in importance in her world. At the same time I await with great anticipation the young woman she will become.

Who is this butterfly meant to be? 

Will she stop and rest for a moment before taking flight? Will she stay close?

butterfly

Photo by Monica Rodgers

Recently I had the opportunity to chaperone a field trip with her fifth grade class. She told me it would be nice if I came, but it would also be fine if I didn’t.

(One foot in, one foot out).

We didn’t have to leave for a couple of hours to where we’d meet her class, so we ventured to the beach to let the beast (that is, our labrador retriever) romp.  I smiled as I watched her run with the same look of wild abandon as the dog, freed from the constraints of his leash. She flew..head back, wild hair…entirely unaffected by the presence of other beach goers. Thinking of my own insanely insecure adolescent years, I wondered if she’ll stay this way.

I hoped so.

Once worn out, she sidled up beside me. It was a beautiful, but crisp, late spring morning; I had my hands tucked into my jacket pockets for warmth. As we walked she slipped her hand…still so small…into my pocket, intertwining her fingers with mine.

We walked that way for a while, the two of us sharing a warm pocket.

Soon it was time for the field trip. It was the first one I had been on in a couple of years, and I marveled at them all – this group of children – all so different, yet so connected. They are at that awkward age where most of the girls tower over the boys. They moved like a giggly, beautifully awkward amoeba.

As we meandered along, I kept my distance like a good mom who-was-allowed-to-come-but-it’s-okay-if-she-didn’t. I watched as my daughter flitted along with her friends, free and happy. At one point I was surprised to find her walking along beside me.

(I presume, just by habit) she slid her hand into mine. Squeezing it, I looked down at her and smiled. Suddenly self-conscious, she offered a quick grin and let go, running ahead to join her friends.

As she should.

I will always have a warm pocket…when she needs one.

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Day 323/365 Totally Doable

Lately I have been feeling really happy…

Sunshine-y, even.

I have been in a make-sure-you-tell-people-you-love-them (and not because you’re afraid they’re gonna die but just because you love them) kind of mood. A random-acts-of-kindness kind of mood.

A mood of expansion, a gesture of openness….a heart open wide to life and love, and their infinite possibilities.

I think it all started when we were in Florida. I experienced a shift.

We were nearing the end of the trip (that time when everyone begins to dread leaving paradise and coming home) and I had this revelation…

“Home” for me is a pretty amazing place.

In the most literal sense, we live in a beautiful town in coastal New England. I have settled into a home that feels like a sanctuary to me, but…home is more than a town, or a house.

Home is my beautiful family.

Home is my passionate work community.

Home is my incredible friendships.

Home is also within me.  I am feeling more and more comfortable in my own skin. 

Home is…truly a gift. I am beyond blessed.

I see that. I feel that.

Going “back to reality” isn’t so bad. In fact, reality is…at the moment, pretty damn good. 

Throughout all of the challenges I have had over the past two years, somewhere inside of me (sometimes way, way inside of me) I did always know that the darkness wouldn’t last forever.

Life is a pendulum after all, and things are always bound to swing the other way sooner or later.

Which is what worries me now…in my sunshine-y place.

{Ha…will she ever relax, you wonder? Um…nope.}

Now that my pendulum has swung toward happiness, I can’t help this niggling feeling (or knowing) that the upswing can’t last forever, either. It goes both ways, for better and for worse. That’s how it works, you guys.

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I went on a field trip with Beau‘s class this week. We went to the zoo. Throughout the trip I somewhat compulsively counted heads like a good chaperone…making sure everyone was safe and accounted for at any given moment.

One, two, three, four…WAIT, WE’RE MISSING ONE! Oh, nope – there she is. ALL GOOD!

That’s the best way I can think to describe this niggling.

I feel like there’s a little piece of my brain that is always actively “counting heads.” Everyone I love can’t possibly be safe and accounted for…so I count…

One, two, three, four…

Really? ALL GOOD? Can it be? Better count again, just to make sure. 

Look, I don’t know if I will ever stop counting heads. Experiencing major upheaval and loss will do that to a person. I’m okay with it.

What I am learning to do is to enjoy the sunshine just the same.

Right now, right here –

I’m home…and everyone is accounted for. That’s more than enough.

“DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY!” may never be my mantra.

But this

Is TOTALLY DOABLE.

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Day 322/365 This Wild and Precious Life

As many of you know, my family has been taking the same spring trip together for over twenty years.

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If you have been an avid reader of this blog, you may have, in a sense, taken the trip with us last year. Coming just five months after my father’s death, it was hard. I tearfully joked that I felt we should have purchased an extra seat on the plane, for the grief we carried with us surely was too big to fit in the overhead compartment.

I shied away from family photos that year. It was as if I didn’t want to remember it. Not as if, actually. I didn’t. I just wanted to get through it, because he would want us to keep going there…and to keep toasting to him with each sunset.

Fast forward a year, and for months prior to the trip there was an unspoken worry –

Will Mom be well enough to go? Would we go without her?

Could we?

She would insist. It would be awful.

As the trip approached, we learned not only would she be able to come, but she would also be completely done with treatments. We were elated. I was on a high for about a week…until suddenly the pain of not having my dad there resurfaced for me.  In talking to my mom, the same thing had happened to her.

Elation…then, grief.

Perhaps, she said, we never had enough time to grieve him. Suddenly we were thrown into dealing with The Big C. Our grieving was interrupted. Now that that storm has passed, the grief returns…not yet through with us.

I found this thought incredibly frustrating. I know I’ll mourn my dad forever, but I so desperately wanted to feel light again. Life has been so heavy.

I wanted to stand on the beach with my toes in the warm sand, and to fully feel the sun on my face…literally and metaphorically.

Off we went to Boca Grande…

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In the end, aside from a few tearful moments, the predominant feelings I had throughout the trip were those of gratitude and joy.

Dad wasn’t there – but Mom was…and she had fought like hell to be there.

There we were – my big, beautiful family, in the most beautiful place.

There’s something I’ve noticed about the beach at Boca Grande. Every year it is the same familiar place, but there is always something slightly different about it, too. All of the storms throughout the year, and even the day to day currents and tides…they alter the landscape.

They expose new things, they erode coastline, they create sand bars.

Things never stay the same, and yet, it is always beautiful.

It is always Boca. 

In our lives we have day to day currents and tides that ever so slowly and subtly alter us. Sometimes there are big storms that ravage us, and we must rebuild. Sometimes the devastation is so vast, we aren’t sure where to begin…but we do.

We always do.

Life creates and exposes, erodes and rebuilds.

What remains, through it all, is fundamentally beautiful –

It is Life…or as Mary Oliver wrote…”your wild and precious life.”

And she asks…

What do you plan to do with it?

 

 

 

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Day 321/365 Her Lens

I have told the story before about how, after my father’s death, I became more keenly aware of a lack of photos of my mother. The reason being, she is an avid and talented photographer, thus is always behind the lens.

When I mentioned this to my mother, she said, “When I die, I will leave behind photos of all of the people, places and things that I loved…as they were through my eyes. Isn’t that better than a bunch of selfies?”

I was so struck by that, as was my daughter, Beau, who heard my mother say it. She still brings it up now and then…remember when Nana said…

My mother’s photography is how she expresses her love of the world…of her world…to all of us.

It is her. 

Nine months after her husband’s death, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I cannot speak for her, because it begs a question I have been afraid to ask, but…

If my partner…the man I had loved for fifty-five years had just left this Earth, I think I may have wanted to die, too. If the doctors told me that if I did nothing, I would soon be with him…I may have curled up and quietly said, “As it should be; take me too.”

My mother didn’t do that.

She chose to fight for her life…and I know in my heart that she did it just as much for us as she did for herself…perhaps for us even a bit more.  

I was there with her every step, but I can never truly know how awful it was for her – still freshly grieving while enduring a heavy course of chemotherapy, followed by major surgery.

I marveled constantly at her strength, and I was frequently overwhelmed by gratitude for all she was willing to endure.

She fought. She struggled.

She did not pick up her camera for eight months. She did not share her view of the world. I think it was just too dark a place.

In late April she was given a clean bill of health. She was (is) considered cancer free.

Florida bound for our annual family trip, she brought her camera.

Once again, she was ready to show us the world through her lens.