Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Embracing it All

The last week of November is here and the month of December is quickly approaching. I’m anticipating the bittersweet moments that will come. I am excited but also a bit concerned. I don’t want the hustle and the bustle of the holidays to consume me. I’m already missing the loved ones I’ve lost, and the world does not hesitate to tell us that the holiday season is hard on those who are grieving. I’ve already felt the lump in my throat when I spotted John Grisham’s newest book and realized that this year I could not buy it for my Dad. I will not purchase a new spatula for my Mom’s Christmas stocking either, for the first time in over 30 years. I understand. I accept this. But I do not want to feel sad for the next four or five weeks in a season sprinkled with touching television commercials. I don’t want to be pushed, rushed, or on edge trying to prepare for special meals or gift-giving, either. I’m planning to embrace these heart-string pullings that may visit from time to time. But with the longings I’ll feel, I’m hoping I’ll also have moments of great joy. I know I’ll feel my heart lightened when I get to see my two college daughters who will be home on break. There are other wonderful opportunities, hopes and dreams for the season including our family’s first trip to Florida together. So I am determined. I am vowing right here, before the weekend prior to Thanksgiving even arrives, that I will pull back and take in moments of peace and the joy that exist in this world. 
I’ll begin today, right here. Right now. Here are some of those moments of peace and joy I experienced today: 
*When my period three class and I finished our discussion of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel then watched and laughed our way through a Bugs Bunny cartoon episode of Jeckyl and Hyde. I love sharing easy-going moments like this with my teenage students.
*When I spent another lunch break laughing with five wonderful colleagues who are so very supportive of me and one another. These women are creative, caring, happy, and FUN! We have serious conversations but then something strikes us funny and we all lose it! 
*When my brother sent me a note and called me Annie Oakley. The pet name and the affection it symbolizes touches my heart.
*When I rode to work with my husband and we talked and talked and talked. What an amazing best friend he has always been. 
*When I looked at my son in the recliner with our 15 year old cat snuggled on his lap. He turns 14 years old himself tomorrow. What a beautiful boy he is. What a good kid. How incredibly lucky I am to have him. 
*Right now. I am in bed typing this on my laptop and texting back and forth with my two daughters on my iphone, while my puppy sleeps peacefully at the foot of the bed. 
Come Thanksgiving. Come Christmas. Come New Year. I am ready to embrace it all.   

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lightly My Darling

For a few months now, I’ve been trying to understand a way to articulate how I feel myself transforming. In the days after my Dad’s sudden death, I was in survival mode. In a matter of six days I wrote his obituary, helped plan his funeral, sang at that funeral, traveled 1200 miles, attended play rehearsals, finished semester grades at work, and opened a community theater show in which I was the leading actress. The next nine days had me finishing the last of six shows, driving four hours to Rhode Island and back for my daughter’s college orientation, and cleaning the kitchen in preparation of a new countertop installation we had previously scheduled. The next month would bring a little rest before I went to care for my Mom for two weeks, but I found myself painting kitchen cabinets too. I knew I had to keep moving.

Looking back, and also acknowledging the assorted challenges the autumn months have brought, I see that as hard as it has been to feel the loss of my Dad, I have done more than survive these past five months. I have learned to walk lightly. This does not mean I don’t hurt at times. This does not mean I don’t care about serious matters. Of course I do. But I have grown to approach life differently, with deeper breaths, with God’s grace, with increased peace, and with an overall healthier perspective. Our time here can be spent stomping heavily upon the Earth--being argumentative, cynical, snappy, crabby, fearful, bitter, or angry--OR--our time can be spent working to better understand others, lending a hand, taking time to listen, seeing the good and the beautiful, breathing deeply, and exhaling in prayer and appreciation. 


It’s dark because you are trying too hard. 
Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. 
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.

I was so preposterously serious in those days...
Lightly, lightly--it’s the best advice ever given me...
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, 
sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.

That’s why you must walk so lightly. 
Lightly my darling.

---Aldous Huxley, Island

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Giggle A Day

I get the giggles. Not every day, but quite often. It happened today as I pulled away from the garage with my son in the car. My husband was approaching my van attempting to get my attention.  “Any issues?” he asked, in connection with the fact that my car had needed a jump start last night. But ahhhh, I don’t know. The look on his face, the question that was asked, my own tired self...for some reason, it all struck me funny. I stammered out an answer, “No”, and then I started to giggle. My laughter continued at the bus stop as my son and I waited for his bus to arrive. “Mom! What is wrong with you?” Paul laughed. Uncontrollable laughter and immaturity make for a fun way to start a morning. And let’s be clear. I was being the immature one.  

The giggles returned an hour later when Jared, a student in my Creative Writing class, sent me a google doc that he tried to title “November Challenge”. His IPad’s autocorrect feature somehow renamed the file, “Mover Beer Challenge”. Only Jared and I knew at first why I was giggling so much, but soon the class realized it had something to do with the document he had just sent me. The students begged one of us to tell them what was so funny, but Jared and I were both giggling. It took us a good couple of minutes to be able to share with them the source of our laughter. 

Later, when I walked into my Horrific Tales class. I decided I’d had it with the tired, quiet nature of the group. I wanted more participation, more discussion, so I began to tell them my concerns and started with, “Here’s the thing”. That’s when Keanna interrupted me, “Are you breaking up with us?” she said playfully. That was the only invitation I needed to get silly again. I announced to the class that I was indeed breaking up with them. They were too serious, too quiet. They always made me feel weird. Students immediately began to snicker and to giggle. To push them to participate more freely, I challenged them all to be weird with me, and to “make a scary sound” before we went on with our lesson. It took a little coaxing but soon there were shrieks, gasps, gutteral throat noises, bone creaking, and zombie breaths. Oh, and one very unexpected short scream (from me). And yes, there was laughter. Lots of it. 

When I think of my favorite memories involving my Mom and Dad, they are the ones where they each laughed. Dad would throw his head back and after a silent intake of air, out would come a loud chuckle. Mom was notorious for giggling so much that she’d cry tears and have trouble catching her breath. I certainly inherited that giggle gene from her, as my children can attest to. I always lose it at fast food drive-thru windows. I’ve tried to order meals and have made squeaking noises into the intercom when I can’t catch my breath long enough to speak. I once ordered “PIPSY” (Pepsi) at a decibel level only a dog could hear. 

My husband turned to me one day a few years back and said, “You laugh more heartily now. I like that”. And today at school, the teacher next door said, “Anne, you smile so much more often these days. It’s really nice to see”. I recognize it too. Maybe I’ve mellowed in recent years. The pressures and frustrations of the school system don’t affect me as they once did. I have things in proper perspective, I think. But I’ve always laughed with my children--the three at home and the 100 teens I work with each school year. And I’ve always had people comment upon my smile. Eric’s grandmother used to comment upon my easy smile. I even remember my high school English teacher telling me that my face was going to get wrinkly very early in life because my face was very expressive. I remember thinking, “What other option do I have? I’m not going to stop smiling!”

Things strike me funny every day. People make me smile. Nothing feels more satisfying to me than laughing with others. Call me naive. Call me immature. Call me foolish. Call me weird. But come on, try to join me. Get silly. Give me a smile. Lose yourself in laughter. The world’s problems can wait a couple of minutes. Reenergize. Be happy.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On My Path

Oh Hamlet. You’ve done it again. Each year that I reread this play, I underestimate its power. Within minutes of starting class this morning, we were reading the first scene of Act I. Oh yes! The ghost of Hamlet’s father! “Oh what a fun play this is!”, I thought to myself.

And then, we began reading scene two. In scene two of Hamlet, King Claudius speaks of his new marriage to Gertrude, the widow of his brother, the former King of Denmark. He thanks everyone for their support and then turns his attention to military matters. A little further into the scene, Claudius addresses his nephew, the young Hamlet. He scolds his nephew for his “prolonged” grief over the death of his father. He condescendingly says that it, “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father, but you must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his...(and) to persever in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubborness, ‘tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a heart unfortified, a mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled...”. The berating speech continues for another twenty lines. 

I knew the classroom discussion that would occur next--the inquiry over the “appropriate length of time for grief”. As predicted, my students began to comment on King Claudius’ speech to his nephew. “He thinks Hamlet should just ‘get over it’”, one student said. “He’s cold”, another remarked. One student, not quite defending Claudius, but offering another perspective said, “He’s trying to say that to lose a loved one is not uncommon, that Hamlet lost a father the way his own father lost a father and so on”. I acknowledged the truth of that fact then brought the students’ attention to the lines that signal Claudius’ belief that Hamlet’s grief is “unmanly” and the lines that suggest that those who grieve for such a prolonged period (which is not more than a month in the case of Hamlet) are not well educated, are weak-willed, and/or disrespectful to heaven. To grieve this excessively is offensive to the natural order of things, Claudius believes, and the grief should be buried, “throw(n) to earth”. The discussions that resulted from this opinion will extend to another day.

So...just how long should we mourn? The experts will say, “Take all the time you need” or speak of how we can be unexpectedly hit with a wave of emotion long after the time we think we’ve found closure. But does that mean grief has an expiration date? In respect to the research I have done on the subject, I believe there is no one proper way to grieve, no one appropriate timeframe or acceptable process. What one person considers “prolonged grief” is a touchy subject for another. Our journey with grief is individual, personal, and most importantly, is not to be judged or seen as shameful by anyone else. When others do judge, our grief may be further complicated. Why do others feel a need to find a way to abbreviate the grieving process for others? Are there societal norms that should be considered or challenged? Do some people truly go too far and “dwell on the past” or do some people actually “bury their emotions”, never truly allowing themselves to feel the sorrow fully or to hurt after a designated period of time? Doesn’t it hurt the way it does because what we had mattered? Are there levels of acceptable grief? Does someone’s sadness overtake their days or is it more that that a person’s loss travels with them as a companion as they experience daily life--the ups, the downs, the steadiness of a life that continues to move forward? Interesting questions. But I believe it’s up to the individual to decide on the answers for himself.

No one wants grief to trouble anyone in the extreme way it does the young Hamlet throughout this play. That poor kid needed a good friend, and some good books on grief, not to mention a good lawyer, for the character’s situation was greatly exacerbated by the words and actions of his treacherous uncle and confusing mother. But that leads to the story of betrayal and revenge, and that’s not the discussion I’m having here today. We’re only on Act I. Let’s stick with the subject of grief. 

Folks who know me are aware that I have been living through loss for a few years now. First a few years ago I lost my old Mom to Alzheimer’s Disease. It was time to adjust to the new reality of my new Mom. Then, almost one year ago, my mother-in-law died of cancer. Five months ago, my father had a heart attack and died suddenly. These losses all came as my two oldest children were moving out of our home to go to college. Some might say that change in our household added to feelings of loss. But in any case, am I grieving appropriately? Properly? Acceptably? By whose standards? In my evaluation, I am doing well. I am living my life, tending to my career, my family, my friends, my goals and aspirations. Sure, I cry at times. I also talk to the dead on occasion. “Hi Dad. I just want to talk to you about something. Got a minute?” I write to process my feelings and my thoughts. I talk to my husband, friends, coworkers, and family. I also laugh, enjoy my hobbies and activities, relish the affection of my loved ones, and plan for the future. Why yes, I believe I am emotionally healthy and living life fully, albeit, unapologetically, with loss. Thank you for asking.

We travel along our own path of grief and we meet up and spend time with other people--some strangers or mere acquaintances, some well meaning friends and family, some of whom are grieving also. With some, we don’t share our day-to-day journey or how we travel with our loss for fear that we will pull others down by our own experiences, or for fear we will be misunderstood in our articulation of our emotions. With others, we share what we feel like sharing either because we find support and empathy or because their opinions of us do not hold much weight and are not risking added hurt. Some may think I “over share”. But hell, I’m a writer. And I’m an artist. And to tell you the truth, this is who I have always been. I’ve always been open with who I am and how I think and feel. Mom and my Dad always knew the real me and they were my greatest fans. Truly, they were so incredibly accepting of me, of how open and honest I strived to be, even though they were more private. What a gift they gave me, to allow me to be my own person! 

One conclusion I have come to as I watch others experience loss is that I cannot pretend to know how each is walking along their individual path and I should not judge or compare our journeys. When I have affection for one who has lost a loved one, or when I think I might be able to help, I throw a kind word or question their way, and often, I am told, that is enough. When I reach out to students who have recently lost a parent or a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, they come back and say to me, “Thank you for telling me that you care”. I think they are also saying, “Thank you for acknowledging that my life has changed and feels different now. I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m feeling contrasting things at the same time and I am trying to wrap my head around how this can all be what it is”. 

It’s not a matter of “getting over it”, Claudius. Rather, it’s a matter of “getting it”, and realizing that just because we “get it” today, does not necessarily mean we will “get it” tomorrow. And that’s okay. We keep moving forward but allow ourselves a step backward or sideways, whatever needs to happen in the moment. And we continue to live.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pulling on a Robe

I needed this day to be different. So instead of hopping in the shower as I usually do on Sunday mornings, I pulled on my red robe--one of two robes which hang on the back of my bathroom door. Those two robes are rarely used but when they are, I feel comforted and relaxed. My red robe is a lightweight fleece. It’s perfectly worn in, with deep pockets and a simple wrap tie. My green robe is of the same design but is made of a heavier plush fleece, definitely one for a colder morning. 

I avoided wearing one of my robes before today, maybe because wearing one commits me to moving a little slower in the morning when I need to keep busy, or perhaps because I knew that when I pulled one on, I'd be reminded of how Dad always borrowed my robes when he'd come to stay. I have pictures of him wearing both the red one and the green one. I have a picture of the two of us posing together in my robes. I love that he always felt comfortable reaching for one to wear in the morning when he visited. It is just one of many affirmations I have as to how he always loved being here at my home with my family. 

But this morning I said, "No. I need this day to be different". I felt some shame in not jumping in the shower to take my boys to church. But there was a strong pulling inside of me that said this decision of mine today was understood and accepted. And as soon as I pulled on my robe and made my way down the steps to the kitchen, I knew I was where I was supposed to be today. 

The sun came in through the panes of glass in the living room. I reached for my frying pan, started some scrambled eggs, then made my way to the living room, to the old stereo that my husband and I purchased 25 years ago with our wedding gift money. I tried to play a classical music cd, for I grew up listening to classical music playing in our house each Sunday morning, but our cd player is malfunctioning again so instead, I turned on the radio. My son came downstairs at 10:00am and asked, “We’re not going to church?” and I smiled with pride that he was asking about this break in our normal routine, and without giving him an explanation, I said simply, “No. Not today”. My husband cut squash for me to bake, then headed to the dump. I did some cleaning of the stove and some dishes, again thinking of how my Dad would always take over dish duty when he’d visit and how he’d leave my sink sparkling. Then I sat down to tackle some research paper correcting. Satisfied, I completed a set of grades and put the folder back into my school bag.

“I needed this day to be different”, I again found myself saying aloud. The Catholic girl in  me was still in need of absolution for missing Sunday mass. I got the chicken going in the oven, took the baked squash out to scoop, and then sat down at my laptop. I entered in grades, took a moment to respond to a student’s email, chatted with each of my daughters, and again looked out the windows to the golden foliage that surrounds my warm home. I sat there, quietly. Just taking in the view. The dog came around a few times, perhaps a little confused with how I had stopped to pause for this amount of time. Here I was, still in my robe, and it was now after noon. 

I needed this day to be different. Who knew it would take only a robe to come off a hook to make that happen? Well, truth be told, I knew.