Conversations on Death

When the subject comes up and I tell people my mom died in the recent past, I watch them, watching me. They always look uncomfortable, like I’m about to burden them with some embarrassing display of emotion they won’t know how to respond to. The assumption seems to be that I’m sad, even though I’ve said nothing about being sad. They act like we’ve stumbled on an awkward subject that I don’t want to talk about, but nothing could be further from the truth.

conversations on deathOur vocabulary for grief and our experiences around death and dying is dismally limited. Losing my mom when she was 60 was/is a big deal, but I’m not “sad,” exactly, and I’m continually frustrated that I can’t have more meaningful conversations about my experiences around my mother’s death.

Most of my exchanges on the subject are like having an iPod that came with one song on it, and not being able to download more. I put on that same fucking song whenever I feel like music, but that song almost never matches the mood I’m in. I get up and dance to it anyway, because I want to dance and I don’t know what else to do. It’s pointless, boring, unsatisfying.  Continue reading

Advertisements

Show Me The Door

“Show me the door, and I will walk through it.”

This is the promise I made to myself during the most difficult time of my adult life, when all the elements of my existence seemed to be in discord.

doorwayIn the months – truly, the first raw years – after my mother’s death at the age of 60, not one thing in my life felt congruent with me. In dealing with her illness and death, I’d reconnected with parts of myself I’d long buried or shoved aside.  I now felt obligated to honor my “highest and best” self unequivocally.

This transition started many years before Mom actually died, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury. After that, my husband’s career was sucked into the vacuum created by the collapse of the housing market. Then our dog succumbed to a swift and brutal illness.  Mom’s cancer was diagnosed shortly after the loss of our dog, and although I carried on with my usual optimism and bravado, I must admit to feeling a little beset.  Still, I had this sense that even these difficult circumstances were leading me somewhere – deeper into my own life, to a more complete knowledge of myself.  Continue reading

Three Word Wednesday – 3WW week #400

This is a fun writing exercise, a little like my Friday Freewrites only the prompt is 3 words, the directions are simply to write something with the three words in it.  Go to Three Word Wednesday to play along!  *Disclaimer: I’m treating this as a freewrite, so you’ll find below a minimally edited piece written spontaneously to include the following three words:

This week:  Devastate.  Gossamer.  Plummet.

Who knew that hope is a thing we find at the bottom?  The word hope carries a lofty connotation; it is something held high, something to aspire to.

I always pictured hope as a shimmering beacon atop a slippery slope, to be scrabbled up toward, fighting for handholds and footholds.  Or I imagined hope as a welcome yellow porch light casting cheerful rays far into the shadows of an otherwise inky night.

But nothing is what I thought it was.  Not the bad-news phone calls, which as it turns out come when they shoudn’t, not ominously at 3 am but rather on a benign Saturday morning while dunking breakfast dishes in sudsy water.  Certainly not the news itself, which should devastate me but doesn’t.  Not the doctors, who are supposed to have useful answers and explanations but whose limited wisdom, it becomes abundantly clear early on, isn’t going to do us one goddamn bit of good.

No, none of it is anything like I expected.  It’ll take me years to integrate this trauma into a new version of reality.  Reality, it seems, is a web of gossamer threads, each one so fine it could sever in the slightest breeze, but together so strong they form a thick fabric in which we’re all willingly ensnared. It takes a lot to thrust us from reality, so we talk about it like it’s something immutable, permanent, but reality is actually constantly in flux, changing as we construct and deconstruct it to fit our circumstances.

Anyway, something happened, as you’ve likely gathered, and it changed everything.  It cut me right out of that sturdy web of reality and sent me into freefall, plummeting down, down, to land in deep water.  I held my breath and let myself sink to the murky bottom, tried not to think about the cold.  There I began searching, grasping at vague shapes, picking up, examining, discarding.  Then – there is was!  Hope!  Not a shining beacon at all but rather a humble stone, worn smooth by time with a weighty heft, just right to slip into my pocket.  Hope, plucked from that bottom-place, that place I would never have gone by choice, that place that showed me how to be truly alive.

Acknowledging the Darkness

In the wake of multiple losses, I haven’t had a choice. The darkness clings to me like a fog, like vapor. The shadow is that space between what I thought I wanted – between the life I would design, were I the intentional architect of my own destiny – and what is.

trees in fogDisappointment is the result of expectations. We all have them; our minds work overtime devising the best possible future for ourselves. We will find fulfillment in our careers and our relationships, we tell ourselves. We will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in our sleep, hands clasped, a faint smile playing about our lips. Those we love will enjoy similar longevity. They certainly will not suffer, and neither will I.

Then something happens that clashes with this optimism. Our rose-colored glasses are rudely torn from our faces, and we squint, disbelieving, in the glare of reality. Someone gets sick. Someone gets hurt. A job, even an entire career, evaporates. We throw up our hands and rage at the heavens. “Why me?” we demand. “I don’t deserve this.”

Maybe not, but the universe doesn’t operate on some moral balance sheet, doling out challenges and tragedies only to those who are deserving or feel able to “handle it” at the moment. These things that help us grow – that make us resilient, compassionate, and deep – they hurt like hell and we’d never sign on for them willingly. We are much more content to doze in the back row of the classroom of life.

Ben Franklin said, “No pain, no gain.” To that I reply, “No shit.” Experience tells me he was absolutely right.

Looking for my Happy Thought

It is an essential ingredient for flight, right along with pixie dust, if you believe what they say in Peter Pan.

eagleChildren do it effortlessly.  “Think of a happy thought,” we tell them, and they instantly conjure visions of candy bars or kittens.  Were it not for a shortage of pixie dust, they’d be off on some celestial adventure – second star to the right, straight on ’til morning.

For us grown-ups, it’s a little harder.  This morning I awoke, and every thought that came to mind brought with it a little twinge of discomfort.  It seems just about every element of my life has some nuance of worry or malcontent attached to it right now.  Life can be that way sometimes, and this too shall pass.  But what to do about my happy thought?

It seems more important than ever to find one.  I’ve read books about about the law of attraction, rooted in the principle that we create our own realities with our thoughts.  If I am to be the architect of my own existence, I’d better get my thoughts in order. Of course, there will always be things to worry about, but if they pervade my thinking, then if the philosophers are right, that’s what I’ll get more of.  Something has to balance out the worry.  I need my happy thought.

While contemplating this, I cast about in my mind for a happy thought and came up empty.  Then it came to me: a happy thought really isn’t a thought at all.  It is the feeling that accompanies the thought.  That is where the magic lies – in accessing the good feelings.  In that particular moment, the easiest way for me to feel good was to take a break from thinking altogether.

For a few moments, I was able to just be.  There, in the peaceful space between thoughts, I could experience the kinds of feelings that will help me create the life I want, full of creativity, love, and happiness.

In the Moment

There’s this sense I get that being human is somehow incongruous with our spirit.  It’s as if we are caught in this perpetual tug-of-war between what we are, and where we are going.  As humans, we are awash in emotions, urges, ideas.  We want things, and we want to be things.  At the same time, we are most comfortable when we just are, without striving, planning, or strategizing.  At times, it can be an unnatural juxtaposition of motivations.

zen gardenWe are told that being “in the moment” is what we should strive for, but the demands of our careers, our relationships, and our own scattered lives defy us in this goal.  We are forced to plan, living in the future.  We are held accountable for our actions, dwelling in the past.  To not do these things is to miss out on the essence of being human.  Our current state of existence has its requirements.

However much we have to gain from navigating our humanness, we know there is something beyond that.  On some basic level, we recognize that we are here to love one another, to learn and grow.  But it’s just so damn hard.

Truly living in the moment is difficult to do, isn’t it?  We are told we should meditate, center ourselves.  It’s a nice concept, and when we accomplish it, we are satisfied.  This is what I am supposed to be doing, we think, but so often we fall short.

We judge, ourselves and others.  We intend to live spiritually and to love one another, but the “other” just seems so unlovable a lot of the time.  It’s a constant struggle.  Humanness versus spirit.  Integrated versus fragmented.  Yes, there’s a lot for us to learn, mired as we are in our human condition.

Learning to be in the moment, to be with ourselves, is a painful process, fraught with setbacks and awkward and unwelcome moments of self-revelation.  Most of us have not been taught these skills, by our parents or in school.  Self-awareness is something many people don’t have the tools or the motivation to achieve.  It simply doesn’t seem accessible, and is dismissed as some sort of new age nonsense.

One healthy way to accomplish the mind-body connection is through rigorous physical activity.  While mountain climbing, for example, we are completely in the moment. We don’t know what the next foothold is going to be until we get there.  We have to live in the now: vigilant, expectant, aware.  We are in our bodies and focused, readying ourselves for whatever comes next.

Use of alcohol or drugs can be another shortcut to the state of mind we all instinctively seek, a “quick way” to marry body and spirit.  Right or wrong, all judgments of these behaviors aside, they put us in the moment.  It may not be healthy for our bodies, but spiritually we are seeking.  The stereotypical drunk drapes his arm around his friend in a sappy sweet gesture.  “I love you, man,” he slurs.  But it’s the truth.  Egos set aside, we love one another, unabashedly.  That’s part of being human.  We worry about the details, but beneath it all is love.  And we are looking for ways to love one another.  We don’t think we are, but we are.  It’s really that simple.

Romantic relationships are another shortcut to spirituality.  Think about it – the physical, and the spiritual.  We are connecting on both levels when we are in a romantic relationship with someone.  It’s inherently gratifying – our humanness and our spirit, both in sync.  Maybe this is what being human is all about.  It certainly feels that way when we are in love with someone.  Nothing else matters except that connection.  When we are with another person romantically we are wholly in the moment, and regardless of the ramifications we feel compelled to pursue that connection.  All the sex addiction, all the infidelity…perhaps it is just an attempt to reach this sort of truth.  This marriage of body and spirit.

So,  what I’m suggesting is this: all of us – whether we are Buddhist monks, adulterers, marathon runners, or junkies – share the same goal.  It is an aim that is uniquely human and, at its most basic level, honorable.  We want to join our humanity and our spirit.  I’m not saying there is a right way or a wrong way. I’m not even sure that any of us get there in our lifetimes.  All I’m trying to say is that we are trying.  And maybe that effort – that is the thing the matters.  Maybe it is enough.

Old Friends

We all need quiet in our lives.  We must sweep off the table and make space for it.  My life’s work dwells in the quiet spaces between things – of that I am certain.

When I was little, I had plenty of quiet.  We lived way out in the country, in the middle of an apple orchard, and I was always alone.  I had no siblings, no neighbors with kids, no playmates.  What I did have was an active imagination, and I was a voracious reader and so I enjoyed robust adventures of my own conjuring.

friendsStill, I thought I was lonely.  I built tree forts and yearned for a friend – a Diana to my Anne (of Green Gables) – to come climb with me.  We would giggle and tell secrets.  She would know my heart and understand me without a word.

I thought I was lonely, and maybe I was, with only an aloof cat, the mute companionship of a sweet-natured dog, and the rough-barked apple trees.  But as it turns out, along with the tree houses, I was also building something else.

I was building a relationship with myself.  I asked myself questions and listened to the answers.  The trees were my companions, the tractor-torn clay of the earth.  I ran barefoot and my feet became tough and impervious to rocks.  I ate plums and mulberries – and apples, of course – warm from the tree.

When I started school, I was confused by the complexities of interactions with my peers.  Many of them were abrupt, judgmental, inconsistent.  I began to see relationships as troubling, unsatisfying, and hurtful.

I have been blessed with some very dear friends in my life, but a true and durable friendship, as many of us know, is an uncommon thing.  That Diana to my Anne – that “kindred spirit” that L. M. Montgomery spoke of – I don’t know that I’ve ever quite found her.  Unless…

Unless I am that friend, to myself.  When I think about it, this dialogue that has continued for well over 30 years, this old and comfortable knowing of myself that goes deeper than words, has served me well ever since my childhood, when such self-companionship was forced on me through my isolated circumstances.

When I’m alone, undistracted, and able to really be with myself, it’s like a visit with an old, dear friend.  I thought I was waiting to meet her, but maybe she’s been here all along.  She’s been waiting in the quiet spaces between things…and she is always there for me.

Taking Risks

I’ve never been much of a risk taker.  I don’t buy lottery tickets, for example; I’d rather keep my dollar, thank you very much.  Even roller skating on the fourth grade class field trip to Star Skate was a stretch for me.  Wheels on my feet sounded scary.  I generally like my feet just fine on the ground.

leap-and-the-net-will-appearBut when it comes to my writing, I live dangerously.  Each time I write, it’s as if I’m leaping off the edge of something.  Writing, as I’ve said before, is an act of faith.  One of my favorite quotes is by John Burroughs: “Leap, and the net will appear.”  For me, this describes the writing process perfectly.

There’s an even bigger risk, though, that scrawling my most intimate thoughts across a cold blank page, even than sending them into cyberspace.  That risk would be to write “safe.”

I could compose nice little articles about nice little people.  Other nice people would read them and say that they were “nice.”  I could then smile and think, “Yes, I’ve always been good at telling people what they want to hear.”

Now there’s a truly frightening idea: to take my unique writing voice and use it to say something mundane, something forgettable.  Something I think people want to hear.  Something that doesn’t feel real to me.

This page, or this “slot in cyberspace,” or whatever it is, it is my space.  My writing time is my time.  It feels important to use this space, and this time, to say something true.

So the real irony is that when I take risks with my writing, I am actually playing it safe.  Honest writing still feels like a risk, but in fact I know the net is always there.

I just have to leap before I can see it.

Tapping Into Abundance

The universe has no limits, but we humans like boxes.  We think we need them.  We are uncomfortable with limitlessness.  In our minds, everything is finite.  When someone tells us we can have as much money as we need or want, just for the asking, that we can create our own reality by visualizing, we reject that idea.  “It can’t be that easy,” we tell ourselves.  “If it were, everyone would be rich and successful.”

I saw the movie and read the book The Secret.  A lot of what was said there resonated with me, although it has been said before.  Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization, published decades earlier, suggests that many of the same concepts are true and offers many of the same techniques as The Secret, with more depth and specificity.

I believe that much, if not all, of what is suggested in those books is possible.  At first, though, I didn’t want to believe it.  Why did I reject the idea that the universe will support total abundance in my life?

I don’t think I rejected the idea for the same reason many people do.  Many people (the proverbial masses) engage in what I call “paucity thinking.”  They believe there is not enough to go around, that we have to “get ours before someone else does.”  This is not very useful thinking.

What if there were truly plenty of everything, enough to go around and more?  Many indicators suggest there is plenty.  True abundance can be found at every turn.

Since I don’t buy into this “paucity thinking” model, why did I initially shy away from The Secret’s suggestion that anything I want can manifest?  To me, it seems the book does not address a key component: the synchronicity needed to manifest our desires.  I believe that what we want must be in accordance with our true purpose as an individual (or one of our true purposes, since each of us may well have many).

Each of us has innate gifts, and I suggest we are morally and spiritually obligated to put them to their “highest and best use,” to borrow a real estate term.  We don’t have to; we could sit on the couch and drink beer all our lives, but in exchange the universe probably wouldn’t give us much more than an unhappy, purposeless life.  We could visualize all our desires to our heart’s content through the haze of a drunken stupor: driving a Lamborghini; owning a mansion in the Hollywood hills.  But it probably wouldn’t happen because there we sit, swilling down beer and watching reruns of Two and a Half Men.  We wouldn’t be using our “God-given” talents for the greater good.

That is the ingredient left out of The Secret.  It’s our job to discover our special purpose (no, not like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk) and do it.  That’s how we tap into the abundance.  That’s the doorway to the limitlessness of existence.

I’m working on it.  I’m not drinking beer on the couch.  I’m using my gifts so that I can lead a purpose-driven, fulfilling life.  And though I don’t care much for Lamborghinis, I can think of a few things I’d like to own and accomplish.  When that “little voice inside me” says no, you can’t, I order it to stand corrected.  Yes, I can, I counter.  And why not?

For more thoughts and writings by Jennifer, visit her website at jenniferphelpswrites.com

Why we look, and what we hope to find

This morning I am walking the dogs.  I take a different route, just a small deviation from my regular lopsided figure eight, a short trip down a side street.  I want to walk past the house where the murder took place last week.

We’re all rubber neckers, I think as I wind my way down the mossy sidewalk beside the pink and white oleanders that bloom in front of the house.  These are actually their oleanders, trimmed before it happened. There is a crime scene inside, and outside the grass is cut and the sprinklers are going on timers. As if its inhabitants went to the store, or to the lake for a day of boating.

I question my own motives – why do I detour down the street to see the quiet house where something awful happened?  Will someone notice me strolling by, a way I usually don’t go? People might think I have an unnatural interest in the misfortune of others.  Do I?

I don’t think so. I think I’m like everyone else, wanting to catch of glimpse of that place.  It is the place where what we think we know and what we believe we understand meets the unknown, the unfamiliar. It’s the departure point, the place where the ocean meets the sand. There’s some overlap in that moment when the surf slides up the beach, some commingling. A little sand gets caught up in the ocean; a little salt water sinks into the sand. But then the ocean retracts, pulls back into itself. The beach is still there, but it’s different. It looks the same, but microscopically it’s changed.

That’s how it is with a murder, or a car accident, or someone who has fallen grievously ill. They are on that shore, touching that deep unknown. It’s lapping at their feet, or maybe they’re already deep in it, caught in the undertow. And we want to see it, as if witnessing their struggle, their transition could help us understand.

It doesn’t. What we are left with are only our perceptions, which defy understanding and utterly confound us when we try to express them with language. The house looks the same, but it isn’t. How can that be?  We are left saying absurd, typical things like, “I just can’t believe it,” and, “How can things like that happen to such nice people?” As if there is some moral balance sheet in the universe; I have decided that if there is, it doesn’t follow our logic.

My mom recently died. I feel the urge to attenuate that statement because it seems to shock people. They want to hear softer terms, like “she passed away,” or my least favorite, “she passed.” The truth, to me, is better, however stark it sounds. She died.  She was alive, and now she isn’t.

The first thing I wanted after my mother’s death was the shirt she was wearing when she died, soft and worn like only an old T-shirt can be.  It had been washed along with the bedclothes.  I found it and brought it home.  First I put it on, but that didn’t feel right, either.  I just wanted to be close to where she is now, wherever that is.  The shirt held her body as she made that transition.  Maybe somewhere in that shirt, I felt, was the answer.  That place we want to witness.  That empty house with blooming oleanders, sprinklers ticking in the yard.

Mom’s shirt hangs in my closet.  I don’t want to wear it, but I do want to see it.  “Mom died in that shirt,” I tell myself when I look at it.  It’s still just a shirt, just like the murder house is still just a house.  I could give that shirt to someone and they could wear it, never knowing it held her last breaths, never knowing that shirt is my shore, beyond it the ocean, never knowing that is the shirt that bore her out on heaving waves.

I don’t know where she is, but I know where she departed from. I guess that’ll have to be enough.