Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Acknowledging Grief

This morning I finished reading a book on grief. It’s the fourth one I have completed on the subject since my Mom passed away six weeks ago, and the third that has specifically discussed understanding and coping with grief and change after the death of our parents. The Orphaned Adult by Alexander Levy has been the most helpful of the four texts. Its conversations and shared insights are gently presented with compassion, humor, and wisdom. The book has explored the journey I am taking and it has provided me with reassurances on the subjects of the redefinition of identity, relationships, and faith. The necessities and techniques (for lack of a better word) of grief itself shared in its pages have offered me both comfort and motivating challenges. 

Still, I find myself turning the book over when someone approaches my desk at work. I forgot to do this a few times and caught the awkward expression of a student who read the book’s title before asking me a question about homework. I’ve tucked my book into my bag instead of carrying it into a doctor’s waiting room as I normally do with a novel. 

So, this is why I am writing this note today. I want to be forthcoming about what I have been reading lately. For I am not willing to accept that I am at all ashamed that I have needed to hear the ideas, thoughts, and words of another who has been here before, another who has realized that “grief cannot be done skillfully, artfully, or beautifully”, who sees that “the bereft earn no points for style or difficulty” (Levy 170).

Truthfully, the subject of grief intrigues me—no, not in some morbid manner, but rather from the perspective and reflection upon how our society or our culture approaches the emotions and the pains that come after a loved one’s death. I have read accounts of grief in books of fiction and have compared those to what I have witnessed first hand. In my role as a teacher I have worked with teens who have successfully pushed forward through grief to stay afloat academically. I have watched others crumble after a parent’s death. I have thought, read, and written about grief for several years now. I began my journey with parental loss well over six years ago, when I lost my Mom to the dementia of Alzheimer’s. I grieved heartily back in those earlier years and I shared some of that pain quite openly in discussions with close friends and in my writing which I published to my blog. My Mom was alive but I’d lost her just the same. I needed others to keep me afloat and my cries were heard and good people were there for me. My grief wasn’t comfortable for some and that’s okay— the grief was mine to do with as I wanted and needed, and I did the best I could to take one step at a time through this time of my personal despair.

Losing my Dad so quickly and unexpectedly to a heart attack in 2013 ripped me to the core. In losing him I lost the hold I had to the life I’d enjoyed with both of my parents for all of my 45 years. And although, growing up, Mom had been my greatest confidante, it was Dad who I’d realized I’d had so much in common with—I’d grown to understand him and to understand myself so much more in my adult years. And it was Dad who was the most influential and inspirational role model in my work to learn and to gain acceptance of my changed Mom. My grief for the loss of my Dad was complicated by the matters at hand to help my ailing mother and to clear their home and to tend to other necessities following Dad’s death. I learned many valuable lessons in the aftermath of my Dad’s passing and in the three years that my Mom lived without him. I grew and found the grace that comes with learning to embrace unfamiliar emotions and in finding the support needed to navigate life’s most difficult obstacles. 

I am proud of the growth I’ve made since Mom first lost her memories and through the deaths of both of my parents. But there has been one thing which has nagged at me. I haven’t been able to share these learned lessons with my parents. I have so wanted to tell them how, after they were gone, I started to catch up. I am seeing it all so much more clearly now. That barrier between generations has grown smaller. I now encounter events in life that I once saw them live through and I now have this shared experience, this understanding of life that I want to talk about with each of them. I fully comprehend behaviors and attitudes and our own lives so much more now. As Levy says, “Reality is no longer an orderly sequence from the past through the present and to the future…(it) is much more complex, much richer, that that” (189). For someone who shared nearly everything with Mom and Dad for much of my life, this is such a precious lesson that I wish I could talk to them about now. I do talk to them, actually. I have these philosophical discussions as I step outside and take in the sight of the setting sun or the moon as it rises in the night’s sky. I talk as I close my eyes before bed or as I drive home from the grocery store. And every so often I find that I’m given a sign that they’re listening, and that they both understand. They truly do. I know it, for they too were in my place before—they too lost their parents. 

Levy’s book offered me support and validation of all that I’ve gone through and continue to go through now in my most recent bereavement—it’s tough knowing that I can know longer go visit my Mom, hold her hand, see that twinkle in her eyes, and be satisfied with making her smile. But I do accept the loss and I know that my dear parents are reunited again, as it should be. I am going to take Levy’s advice to continue moving through this grief, to take time to breathe, to make strides to caring for myself more properly, and to acknowledging the fresh and raw pain of missing my Mom and the grief of several other losses I’ve endured over the past five years. I am going return to writing, to reading, to resting, to crying, to exercising, to laughing, to talking, to taking more adventures, to doing anything that I want or need to do. I’m not going to diminish my feelings nor my experiences, instead I’m going to open my arms wide and say to Grief, “Here we go. Let’s do this. I’m ready when you are”. I’m also going to refuse to turn my book over on my desk, because I want the next generation in our culture to see that grief is nothing to hide from. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Giving Sorrow Words

My mother’s funeral was held the day before our national election for our new president. As we drove to Millinocket, I said aloud to my husband, son, and daughter, “I’m glad this is taking place before tomorrow”. My son asked why. I don't think I ever answered him. 

It’s been nearly two days now since we learned who won the election. I stayed up until 1:45am on election night. Just for the record, I was terribly disappointed as I went to bed. But I didn’t cry. I was sorrowful but I’d lost my Mom eleven days earlier. For me, my inability to shed a tear over the victor’s win made perfect sense. The loss of my only surviving parent had perhaps numbed my emotions for the time being. Or maybe I was simply in a state of shock and disbelief. Either way, the election was to be yet another layer of grief to be added to an already heavy heart.

Taking bereavement leave in the midst of this post election day toxicity has been interesting to say the least. I’ve grown to realize my need to step away from media a bit and I’ve gone back to basics. I’ve spent time outside, listening to the sound of my pups running excitedly through the fallen leaves, and I’ve taken time to talk to Mom and Dad. Inside I’ve watched some tv, cuddling up with my sweet kitty. I’ve napped in the warmth of the sun streaming through my back windows, and I’ve read some books on grief. One of the chapters in Good Grief  by Deborah Morris Coryell opens with a familiar quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a quote I’ve found myself saying in my head often over the past several years. “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break”. 

Give sorrow words. This is what so many are doing this week—journalists, political pundits, and the quote unquote ordinary folks on the street or online. Friends, neighbors, and coworkers are engaging in discourse, sorting out their own ideas and emotions as they fervently type up statuses and comments to leave on the posts of others. Some people are growing more and more emotional and frustrated and are beginning to pull away from one another. That’s understandable, I think. But in my humble opinion, everyone in one way or another is giving their sorrow words. And that’s healthy as long as it’s done knowing it’s a part or a stage of grief. It’s a necessary step to healing. Denial, sorrow, anger, bargaining, acceptance….oh, I don’t believe that grief has a linear path, but I do see even self-sufficient adults grieving publicly this week. I am too, but you’ll have to understand that my grief is my own response to a catastrophic loss of different proportions. It’s not everyday that your Mom dies, after all. 

Our society tends to rank losses in a hierarchy of grief. This is wrong. Loss is loss and all losses must be grieved in their own right and on their own terms. Grief can be surprisingly deep and painful, especially perhaps when the loss comes as a shock. People feel depressed, resentful, angry, and need help to cope. Their grief should not be mocked. Giving sorrow words is a small step towards healing. When a loss arrives, even one that is expected, the heart and mind still must process the loss.

I process loss, fear, disappointment, betrayal, and other unpredictable parts of life through words—those I read and those I write. I’ve experienced a lot of loss over these last five years, and I have grown to become more self-aware. I say this with gratitude, but it doesn’t mean that this awareness has continued without struggle and vulnerability. Yet, I refuse to give in to fear. A broken heart has more room for  all that is important. I may be overconfident and terribly underestimating what’s ahead of us all, but I fiercely believe in my ability to navigate the hardships of life and in my capacity to be courageous. 

“Life in its very nature…(has) no guarantees of what will happen next…that very unpredictability holds loss at its center….this gives rise to the question of whether it was ‘ours’ to begin with. Our culture and even our world has become so disconnected from the nature of life that we have come to believe that we can take possession and control it…”, writes Coryell (119). I know that I only have so much control in this world but I’ve learned that I can and I do make a difference in my corner of it. And that will continue, no matter who is living in the White House. 

So that’s that. Those are my words concerning the timing of my bereavement leave. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to return to my regularly scheduled journey with grief. I miss you Mom. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Living Summer to Its Fullest

With a sunburn on a small part of one shoulder, I told myself a day out of the sun might be best for today. But in truth, I think I was looking for an excuse to putter here at home. Since getting out of school two weeks ago, I’ve taken the phrase, “Live life to its fullest!” to heart. A trip to Boston, The Color Run, a week of Young Authors Camp, a night at the movies, two ocean days and one day at the pool, a visit with Mom, a wedding reception, Causeway walks and fireworks, even time spent snuggling baby goats, and several BBQs later, these first fifteen days of my summer vacation have been a whirlwind adventure of fun! 

But today has been just as nice. I completed a few chores that had been neglected. I located the vacuum that had been in hiding, emptied the upstairs wastepaper baskets, cleared off “the blue table” by putting away the last of my teaching materials, swept pine needles off the deck, and reorganized my writing desk (which then inspired me to write two blog posts). I took the pups for a mid-afternoon nap, read a couple of chapters in a new book, and even watched an episode of Law & Order with little Zoe in my lap. Even our kitty Jenny hopped up for an extended period of cuddling. I took a shower around 5:00pm, plopping down in front of my bedroom fan while in my towel, hair sopping wet. I played Yahtzee on my phone and I opened up and hung two strings of outdoor lights on the little tree near our deck. Oh, and I antagonized my son a bit, had him go down cellar to change the kitty litter box, then made him lunch. 

Shortly I’ll head outside to water the flowers. No doubt the pups will run around the house as I move from one planted pot to the next. I’ll chase them, retrieve another saliva covered ball to throw again, hear Ziva playfully growl in excitement as I try to pull her toy away from her. Zoe will go to her favorite digging hole and then play keep-a-way when it’s time to head back inside, coming in ten minutes later when she’s proven her point. The sun will set, I’ll read another chapter or two in my book, join my family for a little TV, and get to bed before midnight. 
That’s as much as I know. How tomorrow will unfold, I haven’t a clue. Maybe I’ll pop up out of bed and get in an early workout at the gym. Maybe I’ll laze around in bed and read some more. Maybe I’ll make us all a big breakfast and we’ll find a movie to watch together in the family room. Maybe I’ll hit the beach again, go to a movie matinee, sneak off for a pedicure…

One thing is for sure. I’ll be grateful for another day of summer. 

Inspiration: Young Authors Camp


For five days, June 27-July 1, 2016, I led a Young Authors Camp at the Naples Public Library here in town. Offered through the Southern Maine Writing Project, of which I became a Teacher Consultant back in 2007, the YAC day camp allows children and teens of all ages an opportunity to meet one another for a week of creative writing time. This was my first year leading a camp. Although each site is to have a minimum of six campers to cover costs, an exception was made for our group of four. We are a rare high school aged group and the coordinators hoped to nurture this budding interest in the Lakes Region. 

I had butterflies the morning of our first day. I arrived at the library an hour early and Dani Longley, the library's director (who would prove to be an incredibly supportive force for the teens and I), carried in several boxes of materials to The Gathering Room which would serve as our home base. As the campers arrived, I shook hands, smiled brightly, introduced myself as "Anne", and made last minute arrangements with parents concerning pick-ups at dismissal time. I led everyone to our meeting room. Then, we were off and writing!

In our week the three girls and one boy experimented with various writing exercises and prompts, practiced giving feedback to one another, enjoyed a fun writer’s marathon exploring our beautiful town, and worked on pieces to submit to an anthology of writings from all area Young Authors Camp participants. We tested the variety of nooks in the library and settled into our spaces to write. We often ate lunch together on the beautiful deck of the library overlooking the town. Those were times when the campers would find their way to me, to ask me to look over their stories, to ask a question, or to simply talk. At the end of each day, I asked my campers to leave me honest feedback on how the day’s activities had gone for them and whether or not they had suggestions for the next day. It was my hope that each participant was learning, feeling accomplished, and having fun. The teens expressed strong appreciation for the free writing time and the array of interesting exercises. They also proposed a few new activities they hoped to try. 

The writing marathon day was clearly their favorite day! It was mine as well, for it had been the day our group had truly bonded. Walking through town together a natural sharing of our writing and our lives had come about. By the time we reached our final destination on the marathon, the playground, it was evident the four teens had become friends. I sat at a picnic table watching the four of them push one another on the merry-go-'round and I felt all the emotions of a proud parent and teacher. The group was also sincere in their interest to encourage one another’s voices. They consistently shared their excitement to return to camp the next day. The notes gave me the satisfaction of knowing their time at camp was well spent. I could not have asked for a better set of young people to spend time with at the start of my summer.

Although my intention had been to inspire these young people to fall further in love with the written word, working with these four teens over the course of the five days has inspired me as a writer. Their enthusiasm to fill the blank page, to dive into new genres, to experiment with new approaches to writing was beautiful to witness. I began to realize it was time for me to reopen my own writing journals, to recommit to my love of writing.

Returning home after our last day together, I emptied my bag of books and writing utensils and took time to read the notes each had penned to me as we were about to exchange our goodbyes. Signing on to lead a Young Authors Camp, doing the leg work to bring one to Naples, and extending my teaching year for this one week was undoubtedly a blessing. And throughout this summer, I vow right here and now to practice what I’ve preached, to take a risk each new day to put words on the blank page. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Commencement Speech--Gray-New Gloucester High School--2016

Commencement Speech by Anne Walker
June 11, 2016

Good afternoon! It is a BEAUTIFUL day! Thank you for asking me to speak at this year’s graduation ceremony! I am honored to do so and I humbly offer up these words to you.

First, let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Anne, or as many call me, Mrs. Walker. I have taught English at Gray-New Gloucester High School for the past 25 years. Aside from the hundreds of teens I work with each year, I’m also a mom of three biological children at home--two girls, one boy, ages 24, 20, and 16. My husband Eric--who teaches math here at GNG--and I have been married for 27 years--we were once high school sweethearts growing up in Millinocket, Maine. It was in Millinocket that I was raised by two incredible people--my parents-- my champions, and a wonderfully supportive small town community much like this one. It’s probably significant for me to add that I am a romantic, a dreamer, a sentimentalist. I have long been known as someone who feels deeply and cries easily, BUT I am also as FIERCE as they come! (CACKLE!)

Are you okay? I apologize if I got your hearts racing there. My cackle is theatrical. It’s a gimmick I pull out when I teach William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as I introduce my students to the three weird sisters, the witches. It’s also, simply, FUN. I love how in just one big breath I can make people jump out of their seats. That’s power. But it’s playful power. That’s the only kind of power I seek to have.

Being playful is often viewed as undignified, but without the joyfulness of our inner child, we can become too serious, too cynical. Without playfulness and joy, we can feel our hurts too deeply...and for too long. If we want happiness in life, we need to stay playful, or at least, to keep a sense of humor. Play and humor can alter the world around us. It can sustain us.

My cackle is a simple way I can break out of my shell, my serious, introverted self. It allows me to quickly embrace silliness and the beauty of human vulnerability. To do it takes great courage and most of the time, it makes people laugh. Contrary to its sadistic sound, it stirs up good energy and good energy is contagious. I read once that, “The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency in the world”. I wholeheartedly believe this. It’d be wonderful if we each reflected every day on the effect we have on others, to stir up good energy when we have the opportunity, but particularly in lives as busy as most of us lead, it’s easy to miss the opportunities for laughter, playfulness, and authentic human connection. But we can vow now to pay closer attention to how we affect others--to work harder to show up for those who need us, to listen more closely, to take time to laugh. We ought to make sure we’re laughing at ourselves too, for it’s good to stay humble.

Lest I be seen as naive, let me add that I KNOW life gets difficult. There are dark days when anxiety or trauma shows us how ROUGH it can get out there and in here and here. Pain is REAL and hardships for ALL of us do come--and not just once. Life is FULL of challenges--some small but sharp, some so big that you question how to take another step forward. Fear is also a player in life but it’s good to be reminded that we get to decide how much. That’s also within our power. We should also remember and be courageous to ask for help when we need it--and to surround ourselves with positive people who help us lead rich and meaningful lives. No man is an island, my Dad used to remind me. Know that you are stronger than you know. Don’t ever let fear turn you against yourself.

Some of you know that I’m in LOVE with a movie titled, “Hector and the Search for Happiness”. In the movie Hector asks an old monk: “You’ve been a fugitive. You’ve been in prison for your beliefs. You’ve lost family and loved ones. I mean, you’ve just been through so much. How is it you’re so happy?” The old monk replies: “Because I’ve been through so much”.

You see, we can live our lives believing the world OWES us...that people OWE us...that we are ENTITLED….OR...we can live our lives being grateful. The choice is ours. We’ll do better to accept that we will need to work for what we most want in life--whether that is more education, a particular career, a loving relationship or raising a happy family. Most of all, we must not wait for inspiration or motivation to work towards our dreams. I agree with the advice that, “it is better to cultivate discipline than to rely on motivation. We ought to force ourselves to do things, to practice, to work. Motivation is fleeting and it’s easy to rely upon because it requires no concentrated effort to get. Motivation comes to us, and we don’t have to chase after it. Discipline is reliable. The question isn’t how to keep ourselves motivated. It’s how to train ourselves to work without it”.

Parents--thank you for your tireless devotion and attention to these young people. Teachers and community members--thank you for your contributions to the education of this generation. Each person in this room has the power to serve this world in one way or another and these graduates are the evidence that you have done so already. Thank you students, parents, community members for giving me THIS opportunity to serve you and to learn from you.

These young people have taught me so much over the years. Most of all that each new day is another opportunity to be kind, to cultivate more compassion and forgiveness, to work to understand the point of view of those around me, to know that anger is the bodyguard of sadness and to realize that each new day is a chance to do good. And in doing these things, to be happy. The authenticity, the humor, the inspiration of these teens has sustained me during some of the most challenging years of my life. I am honored to have shared this Earth with you these past four years. Our work, our discussions, our PLAY--it’s all made me love life even MORE than I already did. Most of all, I feel BLESSED to have laughed with you--and to have loved you.

On the other side of these doors there is a world that is starving for new workers and dreamers--for new ideas, new leadership, fresh energy, big hearts, the most beautiful music. Don’t worry. You’ll come up with your style--your own way to live--and it’s okay to make mistakes--we all have a reset button. Don’t forget that. I ride mine constantly. Relax, dream up a good life--an AMAZING life--and then go and make it happen. Work towards your goals--let go of the misconception that there is only one way to make them come to pass because to think that way is ridiculous! The doors of opportunity keep relocating. When a door opens in life, walk through it. And if you’re at all afraid, conjure up a good cackle.

Are you ready? Yes. You’re ready. If there was ANYTHING in my speech that resonated with you, I invite you, no, I PLEAD with you to show me right now on the count of three. Take a deep breath and let out a big sound--call it a cackle, call it a YELP, call it a crow, call it a scream. It doesn’t matter. Just show the world that you are HERE and you are READY to walk through these doors. It’s a BEAUTIFUL day! Live life with joy and humor and gratitude! Don’t ever take it for granted!

Ready? On three. ONE, TWO, THREE……………(NOISE…... LAUGHTER......)

Once again, thank you so much. My love I give to you always.