Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More from grief central

A few days ago marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I hesitated to write more about grief but it is such a universal human experience I am going ahead. We all have grief. We lose pets, we move, we have to give up smoking or drinking, we get sick. We marry, we divorce, we get a promotion and have to leave one job in order to take the new one. Loss comes to us on a daily basis. Some losses are small and bring about a simple pause of grief. Others, like a divorce or a death, are seismic and take months or years to ease.

I have found that one of the perplexing aspects of grief is its tendency to add to feelings of isolation. Grief, whatever the cause, strips away and in my own I have found myself feeling profoundly vulnerable and alone. Grief then is a great leveler, bringing sorrow and loneliness to each of us.

During this year of grieving my mother I have experienced loneliness in new and profound ways. I think the bond we have with our mother’s is deeply physical making the sense of isolation, once the bond is broken, physical as well.

As I experienced this loneliness, it occurred to me that I was simply joining the rest of the human race. Loneliness is another of those part-of-the-human-condition things, we all have it. I realized I didn’t need to fix it or change it. I could choose to experience it, try it on and see what it really feels like. I became the observer to my own loneliness and actually told myself, “welcome to the human race.” In this way I chose to experience my humanity and all of its vulnerability. My loneliness, then, became a source of connection with the rest of humanity. Choosing loneliness actually eased it. While in loneliness, I was able to find connection by embracing my humanity. And when I do that, I live into my truest self.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Walking shoes

Yesterday I went to get some new walking shoes. I love the pair I have but they are just a tad small. It was cool Saturday morning when I walked so I wore thicker than usual socks and I walked about seven miles. When I got home, I found I’d bruised the little toe on my right foot and it hurt quite a lot. Probably going to lose that nail.

So yesterday I was off in search of foot relief. I went to one of those athletic stores where they do a careful fitting. “Henry” helped me, measuring and checking my stride. He is a warm, interesting person. We chatted about hiking and he told me about his experience as a teenager being packed off to a wilderness camp for troubled youth. It’s the kind of thing where the parents have to ambush their child, doing all the preparation and packing unknown to the child, sending them off unexpectedly. “Henry,” as one might predict, hated it. They camped and hiked in the wilderness, off trail, covering 20 and 30 miles a day. Since his parents pre-shopped without him, his boots were too small, his feet raw.

Of course, he eventually fell in love with the Utah Rockies and ended up working for the program. However, one of his passions is music, so he came back to Nashville, the home of all things music.

As we talked yesterday, it became clear to me that his passions are torn. He loves that outdoor, mountainous lifestyle and working with people in that atmosphere. He also loves his music. And, from my brief encounter with him, he enjoys helping others (my feet feel so much better today I could weep). What was so apparent to me is that each of these passions feed his soul.

“Henry” hasn’t been out west for a long time. He is currently formulating a plan to get there for a visit. I could feel his longing for the mountains and the wild beauty there. And it struck me that if he could be in his beloved mountains even once a year, it would feed the creative drive of his music. The two things need each other for his spirit to truly thrive.

The idea of going where my love is, of really following my passions makes sense to me but I have often been held back from it by my own fears. I can come up with a lot of reasons, very sensible reasons, to not follow my heart. And only one, the one that defies logic, to do so: because my heart burns with love and joy when I do follow those passions. In a world of mortgages, tuition, and taxes, that just doesn’t seem very practical.

And it isn’t. But we aren’t in this world to be safe. We are here to trust, to live with love and joy. Plus, there’s no reason why we can’t follow our hearts and pay our mortgages. After all, it’s about trust.

I hope “Henry” takes that trip out west next spring. And I hope it stokes the fires in his heart and belly and helps him find his bliss.

As for me, I’m going to enjoy the amazing people in my life who give me courage to follow my own bliss. And, a step at a time, I’m going to follow it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Climbing out

In the spring of 2007, I filed for divorce from my marriage of 20 years. Life felt heavy and I wore it heavily.

During this season, I spent a great deal of time at Radnor Lake, the remarkable nature preserve just a few miles from my home. One clear, sunny day that spring, I sat on a bench beside the lake. Sitting quietly for some time I slowly began to notice some movement in the Tulip Poplar branches spread above me. Glancing up, I found hundreds of tiny gray and yellow birds, each no bigger than a ping pong ball, hopping about. Together, these tinies filled that vast tree with their cheerful activity.

As I watched in wonder, I noted an odd bubbly sensation in my chest. It felt good to me, pleasant, and yet strange because it was so unfamiliar.

When I next saw my therapist, I described the moment to her and she said, “that is joy, Janet.”

For much of my life I have been a stranger to joy. As a child, I experienced some fairly severe trauma. I coped in adolescence and early adulthood, but by my mid-thirties those coping skills failed me and I fell into a fairly severe depression.

This depression was such a gift in my life because it plunged me into enough pain that I had to ask for help. Despite quite significant opposition to my seeking out help, I was steely in my determination to get better. So, I began a long road, addressing old wounds and learning to care, at last, for myself.

Here I am, years later, full of deep gratitude, knowing profound contentment, and daily acquainted with joy. Along the way I have ended a marriage and lost friends. Yet, life is abundant for me now in ways that I couldn’t imagine before.

Here is what I want to say to you, in a most heartfelt way: if you are struggling, you do not have to live that way. Whatever challenges, opposition, or difficult choices may lie in your path, you do not have to live in pain. There are many, many people equipped to help and who want to help.

In my deepest heart I believe we are meant to take pleasure in this life, in the living of it. Most of us have painful experiences that keep us from the joy we are created to embrace. But pain does not have the last word here. Joy does.

If are hurting and need help finding a way forward, please email me if you think I can be of assistance to you. You’ll find an email link to the right of this page. Just as we were made for joy, we were made to find our way forward in community, with help from others. And you deserve it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Grief central

This month marks a year since my mother’s sudden death from a massive stroke. In this year I have found grief a strange experience. During, and the first few days after, her death I was superwoman, high on adrenaline and working through the endless list of things that need to be done following a death. Focused on my elderly father and his grief, I paid little attention to my own. Then the fog set in.

Those of you who have lived through the death of a close friend or relation understand what I mean by “the fog.” My brain just went fuzzy the day after the memorial service. I had trouble concentrating. I felt I was unfit to drive, I was that distracted. The tears crept in then, randomly. As when someone mentioned the word “hemorrhage.” Or when someone asked if I’d been terribly shocked by her death. Well, yes. She was fine until the moment the stroke hit. 24 hours later she was dead. I’d say I was shocked. Or when the realization of all the celebrations, weddings, birthdays, and shopping trips she would miss: the thing she loved most was being with her family and she leaves a gaping hole.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross helpfully mapped out her stages of grief in 1969. She proposes five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are not linear and not everyone experiences each stage. I’m finding them to be a bit of a stew, mixed up together. One day I found myself weeping for Mom in the morning and feeling profoundly connected to her and in acceptance by the afternoon. It is a bit of a roller coaster ride.

While I am experiencing this roller coaster, there are also a few underlying spiritual convictions that are helping me. One is that my mother is fine. She is in a place where she is safe, content and useful. I even feel she is busy. Motivated by love in this life, I’m convinced she is busy spreading the love around in the next.

Another thing that is helping me is the feeling that she remains present in my life. She may be on another plane, one that I do not understand, but her love reaches me and her guidance is mine for the asking. With my whole heart I reach out to her and feel her near, continuing to always wish good for me. If I can let her presence in, she will offer her help, through my dreams and intuition.

Finally, and most importantly, is gratitude. My mother was tender and nurturing. The experience of this gave me the ability to recover from my own wounds. She was also smart and interested in the world and in those she loved. I am one of the fortunate few who can say that my parents were truly devoted to each other and I witnessed their mutual admiration for each other. This gratitude is deep, sustaining, and enables me to experience joy in the midst of my grief.

Grief isn’t really about despair. It is about memories, about loss, and about experiencing the vacuum created when a loved one leaves us. But it is also about the vibrant life shared, about the gifts given and received, and about joy. Because grief is so multi-faceted I am finding that I can embrace my own life, the life given me by my mother, even while I miss her terribly. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

An evening at the symphony

My heart continues to soar this morning after attending last night’s performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. From those first, famous "Ba-ba-ba-bom" notes, I was captivated and keenly present. The music itself is tremendously moving but to watch an orchestra skillfully perform this physically demanding music is inspiring.

As I sat in the symphony hall I was bathed in an awareness of good fortune. There I sat, with my wounded heart, seated in this world-class, exquisite hall, surrounded by other music lovers with their own wounds and worries. My heart, bursting with the pleasure of the moment, hearing this music composed long ago by a man unable to hear his own compositions, wrote from his own wounded heart.

Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero vigorously led a talented orchestra through the movements. His stocky form moved with grace, an athlete at work in his fitted tuxedo. It was all invigorating and profoundly moving.

While the music was exquisite, what struck me with force is the vast, collective talent the performance represented. I sat in this breathtakingly beautiful building. It was dreamed of for years by the city’s cultural movers and shakers. Their vision and planning brought the needed funds to reality. Other talents designed a hall to rival the best symphony halls in Europe. A survivor of the historic and massive 2010 flood that hit Nashville, the hall is restored. It is a true delight to be in the building. One of the things I enjoy about going to the symphony hall is standing at the railing of the second floor balcony above the Grand Foyer and watching the people of Nashville milling around below.

The building is one thing. Another is the amassed talent on stage. Young and old, the musicians performed with rigor, feeling and precision. And the bass clarinet player almost made me swoon!

Here’s the thing: people thought up all of this. People similar to myself, with profound wounds, physical limitations, griefs, psychological burdens or all kinds. Like each of us, each one contributing to last night’s beauty and wonder, were and are profoundly human.

I think we so often, in our woundedness, forget the wonders of which we are truly capable. When we give from where we are, as we are, the results can be remarkable. Beethoven didn’t stop writing because he was deaf.

You may not have contributed to the making of a remarkable musical performance (although many of my Nashville friends have!). But I have no doubt you have touched another’s life with your abilities, wisdom, or love. And that is equally remarkable to Beethoven’s fifth.