Thursday, January 19, 2017

#SOL17: Only, Say, A Gesture

Winter Tree (M.A. Reilly, 2014)

In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit. The sprawling darkness of not knowing. We speak of the light of reason. I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of _______. But I don’t know what to call it. Maybe hope. Maybe faith, but not a shaped faith— only, say, a gesture, or a continuum of gestures. But probably it is closer to hope, that is more active, and far messier than faith must be. Faith, as I imagine it, is tensile, and cool, and has no need of words. Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer. - Mary Oliver, p 147, Upstream: Selected Essays 


The last week or two I have felt out of sorts. Restless in my own skin. Unsettled. Sad as definition. I have been waiting find out if the chest x-ray the ENT required shows illness and this afternoon I learned that it does not. It is these tense times that I feel Rob's absence all the more.  My confidant, gone. The intimacy we knew so well, no more. 

But it isn't only the anxiousness of test results and steroids that find me off-kilter. I look back at the calendar to see what exactly was happening a year ago--to see if my body remembers what my mind seems to have forgotten. 

What I mostly recall is darkness. 


Most mornings I entered the hospital so early--daylight was more memory than fact. And it was cold, dark night by the time I stepped out--so late that even the parking attendants had long left for home and the remaining silence was so acute that the coldness was its own sound. In a matter of days, Rob would be returned to the hospital from the Kessler Rehab center. He would be transported the night after a blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow because he was too sick to be cared for at the facility. We would learn in the matter of hours in the curtained-off ER room that another staph infection--the third in four months--was undermining Rob's health. Hospitals with all of their human neglect are hell on the body. Seven weeks later someone who had stolen Rob's debit card number from him while he was a patient at Kessler would buy $800 of musical equipment from a store in Nashville, Tennessee, but by that time--Rob would be dead.

It's strange how memory works, fails to work, and how distance allows for new ways of naming what I want to tie up neatly and call the past. If only. And yet, these days, I think of the past more as folded space-time than linear chronology. Invention, like heart ache, is more Möbius strip than orientable line. 


One evening a friend tweets a link to a video of John Berger in conversation with Susan Sontag. It's an exchange about story telling.  And I tune in carefully when I hear him say: 

"Somebody dies. It's not just a question of tact that one then says, well, perhaps it is possible to tell that story. It's because, after that death, one can read that life. The life becomes readable.”   

At first I think, Yes. Yes. And there is comfort in these words. The readable life offers a neatness--a slight gesture that might help to situate pain and grief and possibility. If only Rob's life could be held in the palm of my hands--carefully--then I might be able to know the whole of it--the extent of what I feel. 

But such knowing is not possible. It's similar to what Mary Oliver says about winter, "The sprawling darkness of not knowing." That's what living is largely about. We are so extraordinarily vested in knowing, in naming, in codifying that not knowing remains unrevealed.


In some ways, it is comforting to think of Rob's life as a familiar narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end. But that is more story than not. What I fail to first account is how longing folds space-time like a worn linen handkerchief unexpectedly found at the bottom of a drawer he always used. There it is. 

No, not waiting

It simply is like any number of other unexceptional things that will be found and lost and recalled as the days refold, come round again. Now that there are moveable borders, the stories seem to have more weight, seem to have less weight.  Each memory is so often (in)formed by the context that gives rise and permission for that recollection to have formed.  Make no mistake here, though: I am not an author in these accounts--at least not yet. 

I am a gap finder. 
A gap filler.
A framer of light.
A bear-witness to what forms when breath is lost.


The first year after Rob's death finds me well acquainted with the incompleteness of gesture. With widowhood there is more suggestion, than codification. It is as it must be. 

What is hard to name reveals a partial language. It is what I cannot seem to tell here--at least to story-tell with any clarity that gesture best connotes. Bearing the loss of my husband is eclipsed only by bearing this new life I am composing. It is this claiming that disrupts the narrative. 


And so we beat on.  

Nick believed in that orgiastic green light, a beacon of hope.

It is this heartache that forms me. 
It is this courage that rises alongside the pain that forms its own alphabet.
And I want to read what is being made.

Everything I have forgotten burns like cold, hot fire against a too-dark January night.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

#SOL17: Talking Race

The Whiteness of America (M.A. Reilly, March 7, 2012)


Last week I sat opposite my nearly 18-year-old son and we talked race at a neighborhood restaurant. Dylann Roof's sentencing was the catalyst of our conversation. My son strongly supported the sentencing decision, while I did not. The jury who found the 22-year-old guilty a month ago, spent three hours that day in deliberation before handing down the decision that Roof should be sentenced to death. Although Roof's hateful crimes are more than reprehensible, I still do not support the death penalty.

I asked Devon what he thought might have allowed so young a white man to go into a church and murder 9 African American people. What prompted such an action?

His environment. What he learned at home. From his community. 
What would we think if someone came into this very restaurant and killed based on race? 
Devon looked at me and said, Well most likely I'd be the only one killed. 
Look around. Everyone here is white. 
I do look around the restaurant and see he is correct. I hadn't notice. I hadn't had to notice. 
I'm the only one who's not, he adds. If anyone is going to get killed? It's me. 
He must see the alarm that crosses my face and then adds, Look, I know there are good people who are white. Not saying there aren't. But, as a group, white people here in the US? They're the meanest.

I have seen this meanness firsthand. I'd like to think that I would have understood white privilege in the same way as I do now had I not been Devon's mom, but I don't think that's true. The sense of privilege that is inherently provided to and only for white people here in the US is insipid and largely goes unnoticed by many white people. I may have been aware, but I know I would not have known it as heartfelt, as heartsick as I do now. Being Devon's mom has altered how I know, how I name, how I feel.

And as I looked across the table at my beautiful son, I thought, he's right. White people, especially those with unchecked power who hide behind the cloak of their religion, are the meanest.


Neither Dev nor I come from the United States. We are immigrants. He is Korean and I am Irish and after the rhetoric of this last election we know welcome when we hear it and not. We used to kid that only Rob was home-grown as he was born in Brooklyn and now our one link to the States is gone. For me, the United States is home. For my son, it is not.

During this last week Devon has told me he is determined to find a pathway to leave the United States and live elsewhere--Switzerland, Japan--places where he has friends and is privy, in some small way, to how well they live. He will leave the States I suspect. He will leave when he is well educated and I imagine he will find or make a career pathway that allows himself more options than just remaining here. This is how Rob and I raised our son. He is independent in the most important ways.

I try to quell the panic that rises each time I hear him talk about leaving. We have lost so much this year already and more losses seem impossible to hold. But I understand why he wants to go. Why he feels not welcomed here.

My friend, Jane, explains this weight that Devon carries so clearly. She refers to W.E.B. DuBois's notion of double-consciousness. In the first chapter of DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he writes:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (from here)

Here, in New Jersey--30 miles outside of Manhattan, we live in a town that is 92% white. My son has never just been a kid or teenager, here. Rather, he has always had to be Korean (other) and American.  

And frankly, we are all the worse for it.


Tonight, I am thinking that the beliefs we harbor, unchecked, can grow into truths that become foundational. These homemade certitudes allow us to think that we are acting justly when we share our poison. The stupid racial jokes we hear and our silence affirms the racial insensitivity that accompanies the punchline. Our silence affirms the belief that otherness is radically different from us.

Years ago, in a classroom at Columbia University, a fellow doc student threw a hissy fit when she heard that Rob and I were adopting a child. She told the small group assembled that we were in a mixed marriage. She was offended by us and that we were going to be adopting a child--a child from another race--offended her even more. I had little idea what she was speaking about until she explained (unprompted by either of us) that because I was Roman Catholic and Rob was Jewish, we should never have married. Now add to that strange mix, a Korean child, and well she was unable to stop herself from speaking aloud.

Even within the bastions of so liberal a university, these foundational ways of marking difference and antipathy rise. Not far from Columbia my mom grew up. Her father, I am told, would have abhorred my marriage to Rob. A thick-headed Irishmen if ever there was, my mom would say about her father--a man she knew to be racist. I never met my grandfather as he died decades before I was born. Fortunately for me his intolerance, his stupidity did not become truths my mother taught me. She knew a fool when she saw one, even one she loved. When I first met my husband's family and some of their extended friends, I too learned the uncomfortableness of other. My being Catholic was not appreciated. I can remember one Thanksgiving when the differences were so magnified. I learned that night that because I was not Jewish, I would remain situated as other.  My mother-in-law would be quick to tell her son that she would never welcome me as a daughter. And so she didn't. Rob and I went on to live well, to love deeply, and to raise a most wonderful son. There is a loss to this and sometimes these losses bear weight.

I think these beliefs that pit "us against them" represent nothing more than a cowardly way to live. Racists are fundamentally cowards. Frightened souls who find comfort in a crowd of like minds. They insulate their ignorance with a tired dogma and try to sell it as something novel.  It is not novel, just, or clever. Just tired. Just wrong. Just banal.

Friends, we can do so much better.  We can live so much better. We need to be willing.


As I listened to President Obama's Farewell Address, I was struck by his comment that our racial differences represent a threat to our democracy. President Obama said,
There’s a second threat to our democracy – one as old as our nation itself.  After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America.  Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.  For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society... All of us have more work to do.  After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.  If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.  
Some days the talk of racial differences, the us-and-them tensions, the "they don't look like me" nonsense leaves me feeling worn and tired and older than the decades say I should feel. The false belief that being white is akin to some god-given greatness is destroying the very republic we profess to love, while harming the psyches and bodies of young people, like my son and perhaps yours as well.

Can we do better?

I think it begins with a self-inventory and a naming aloud of our public commitments to one another. I think it begins by understanding racism not merely as an interpersonal affront, but also as a deep institutional presence.

I want us to be better than our history suggests we are. I want my son and your children too to live in a place where each is not seen first as other. I want whiteness, that festering illness, to be put down. I want us to become other(wise).

#SOL17: The Featherlight Touch

rom my art journal 10.22.16 (gesso, ink, Tombow paint markers, acrylic paint, tissue paper, found papers)


The first year after the death is a murkier time. Some days I hardly l know myself, hardly know whose name I answer to. Other days, my life seems infused with an intense clarity and truths are revealed some times at alarming rates. In between these swings are moments of sweet, sweet grace.

Resting places.


In the last month I have sensed Rob as if he was embodied once again and existing just beyond the reach of my fingers. I imagine his lips, and nearly feel the featherlight touch of his to mine. Love lives beyond the confines of our bodies and yet we crave what our bodies crave.

Touch. Weight. Corporeal bliss.


The veil between him and me, there and here, thins. I am body restless and wake more than I seem to sleep these last few weeks.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

#SOL17: Sunlit Absence

from my art journal

There was a sunlit absence. 
 - Seamus Heaney


A year ago Rob was transported from the hospital where he had undergone neurosurgery to an acute rehab where he was to learn how to stand and walk again. This transfer would mark his end.

Six days earlier the neurosurgeon had told me that a sizable space had opened between the metastatic tumors that were compressing Rob's spine and the affected vertebrae and that this movement looked promising. More promising to me were the oncologist's words when he explained that Rob would not have been allowed to undergo the spinal surgery had he not at least 6 to 12 months to live. I clung to the one year mark, quickly dismissing the mention of 6 months and this new calendar became a truth. 

A year felt indulgent. 
A year had my giddy.

Because Rob's health had deteriorated so quickly, we had spent the months since the diagnosis responding to crises.  We had not lived in ways that were familiar. And Rob had passed from his very able self in late August to a man who first needed a cane, then a walker, then a transport chair, to not being able to move his lower torso and legs at all.  All of this in less than 4 months.

But on that Friday in mid January the prognosis gave us a small measure of peace. A mere three weeks later we would learn that time was not so gracious and Rob would die 20 days beyond that. 


In the weeks preceding Rob's death, love became more pure, more of a singular impulse. It was as if love was equally a centripetal force binding us together and a centrifugal force that revealed defining differences. 

Cohesion and discordance.

Beyond the first floor of our home the world faded. After almost 6 months of rush and response and 100 days in hospital stays--there were no appointments to meet. No hard hospital chairs to wait in. No pulse and spit of breathing machines. No last attempts to save my husband's life. 

The facades that had insulated us from the knowledge of Rob's mortality were lifted. Here, in the sunny corner of our family room, there could be no denying that Rob was dying Each day his body curled more and more into his center self revealing ever widening spaces between here and there, life and death. The sheer love we had made across the decades rose up around us. A trellis of good intentions. 


My memory of these days is mostly unreliable. The details are a mix of what might have been and what I most wanted or could bear. What I best recall a year later is more impressionistic, more translucent.

Color and heat.
Stasis and movement.

Nearing death is a paradox: part mystery, part old friend you have forgotten--a transfer of energy between the known and the unknown.

It was as if the very molecules that made up Rob's body were in transition--a visual ballet I somehow could sense--even as the emotional distance between Rob and me became more acute. My husband was busy with matters I could not see, do not know. Now and then he would partially narrate what life beyond the confines of this mortal world was like. But these too became less and less until there was only breath. And then not.

Friday, January 13, 2017

#SOL17: Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Cancer and Financial Ruin

Earlier tonight, I'm reading before finishing  preparations for dinner when I see a notice from The Guardian flash on my screen with the headline, Congress approves initial measures to repeal Affordable Care Act.

from The Guardian

Take a minute to study the self congratulating smugness that defines these House Republicans. They appear quite pleased with themselves.

Or look at this image of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from this past Monday.
from The Guardian

After six years of vowing to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act,  these callous clowns are moving ahead. Full steam. No stopping. No plan.

But I'm not here to talk about health care as much as I want to say few words about cancer, grief, and the unnecessary burdening of those who already are bearing too much.

Please listen.


A year ago this February I was wondering if Rob, Devon and I would lose our home. I was wondering if the staggering costs of health care and the loss of income would make living where we do impossible. Our health care payment concerns were tempered, in part, because we had pretty good coverage, amazing family and friends who helped us.

And we needed help.

Cancer treatment is expensive. Neurosurgery is prohibitive. Home care can break the little bit of bank you might still have. My husband could no longer work and had stopped earning any income the summer before and by February, I too stopped working completely so I could care for Rob who had come home to die.  Our health care no longer provided any services and my husband could not care for himself. He required round the clock care.  He could not move his body, sit up, stand, walk, turn himself. He was unable to take a sip of water without assistance. I had no idea how I would care for Rob and pay our bills once spring arrived. It was only my husband's death that saved us from financial ruin.


I think about those dark days when I look at the jubilant faces of Speaker Ryan, his merry cohort of legislators, and Senator McConnell. I wonder how it is possible for them to be so out of touch with the sharp and unnecessary pain their careless actions are causing.

When faced with the imminent death of your husband, the financial ruin of your family, and the understanding that on your slim shoulders rests the financial responsibility of a teenage son who will soon be fatherless and is just a year away from college--and frankly the last thing anyone in such a space needs to worry about is what Congress is going to do to screw them over.

They, like me, are deeply hurt already. The surviving spouse has enough on his or her shoulders without having to now worry if the bit of cushion their health care plan provides is also going to be yanked away.

Adding uncertainty to such injury is nothing less than cruel.


Right now in the United States there is a husband, a dad dying of cancer.  There beside him is a wife who is facing what I faced a year ago.  That heartbreak alone, that immense loss is more than some can carry. At least I didn't have to worry that the multi-million dollar medical bills that were piling high as Rob's treatments failed one after the next would also be my sole responsibility. My health care insurance paid the majority of those bills.

Now, I would not know that.
Now, I would add worry as I could not know what the irresponsible GOP in Congress would be doing as I cared for my husband in his last weeks of life and comforted a young son who would no longer have his dad.

Why anyone would want to add to that grief, stress, and fear is impossible for me to understand.


Fix health care?

Revise the Affordable Care Act to make it better for consumers?

But do it reasonably. Not irrationally.

Shame on Paul Ryan.
Shame on Mitch McConnell.
Shame on all who support this recklessness.

These are little boys who have been tossed a new ball to play with and have no sense about the damage their actions are causing. I imagine these men might think differently if they were faced with the ordinary struggles you and I carry each day. I imagine they might pause a bit if they did not have the finest health care plan for free in their own back pocket.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

#SOL17: It Is In Your Hands

What is Written (M.A. Reilly, Tuscany, 2009)

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.                     
                                            Toni Morrison, 1993  


It is never quite as simple as missing him.

It isn't until the late 15th century that regret works its way into the definition. Before that missing was more about failing to get what you wanted. 

And then regret showed up.


Missing is too anemic a posture. Too sterile. Too boxed-up-pretty. 
Too wrong. 

I don't simply miss Rob. I wish it could be that simple. That kind.


Sometimes when my language shows its limits, it also brings to light a deeper syntax and for a moment I notice how interchangeable wishing and feeling are. How they obfuscate as they reveal. 

Most everything is moveable and mute.


Grief is more tacit than not. More implicit than voiced. Even as scores of writers attempt to codify grief with their memoirs and remembrances or fill pages with the strict talk of psychological stages and loose advice--the desperate pain that has broken and re-formed my body's too-slim bones, still resists the easy metaphors about time and roller coasters, waves and shore.


Once upon a time 
all the king's horses 
and all the king's men 
and even Humpty himself 
knew that missing was never a consideration.


Yesterday I was rereading Toni Morrison's Nobel lecture. It's been at least ten years, if not longer, since I last took a look. This time it was the repetition of what rests in hands and the space the narratives open that caught my heart. It was the stories that get made between the old woman and the group of young people as they circle each other, equally blind and seeing, that moved me, that forged a path through these multiple narratives to arrive at the end when the old woman says to the young people (and us)
Finally...I trust  you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done - together." 


In the last hour of Rob's life I clasped his hand between both of mine and held. I held and murmured words, bits of phrases that sounded like, Let go. Find peace. We'll be okay. Let go

A litany of half poems, half prayers. I was anchoring him, not to this earth, not to our time together, but to something more enduring than our hands, our bodies, our selves. 

I was wrapping him and me in this story I am telling so that when he crossed from here to there he would do so feeling the touch of his wife, his lover, his best friend. Feeling until what was earthly gave way to what would be next.


What was within our hands then was unnamable in that late afternoon light. I remember those last minutes. The rough sound of his breathing. The way his jaw unlocked, loose like the lift of a bird finding new flight. 

A wild bird lifting.


I don't remember lifting my phone and making a photograph of my dying husband--one I found this week. One I must have taken sometime during that last hour when the rose colored towel was beneath his head that rested on the pillow I now sleep with each night.


Do I miss him? Could love ever be so ephemeral? So fleeting?


Imagine a story you know by heart. One you love more than the words you use to tell it. It is a story that has transcended the language in which you think. It is a story that lacks meaning.

Now, imagine what it costs to willingly open your hands and release that story, that man, your heart.


That story was never mine alone and it is this connection that sources beauty and pain as it touches me here, now.


What is not in my hand now is what I most trust.


I didn't, perhaps couldn't, know what we caught as we lived and languaged each day. What we made.


I didn't know what I sealed between his and mine hands as he crossed from here to there. 

I didn't know it would be this simple act of love that would sustain me a year later and would allow me to say here and now--that this thing we made together was truly lovely.

Friday, January 6, 2017

UPDATED: 28 Contemporary Speeches about Human Rights and History

Below find 28 important speeches and talks delivered during the last 50 years that focus on human rights. These speeches address issues of race, representation, and justice. I have included links to the transcript of each speech and when available video or audio of the speeches.

President Barack Obama, Farewell Address. (January 10, 2017)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed the class of 2015 at Wellesley’s 137th Commencement (May 29, 2015)

Remarks by the First Lady at Topeka School District Senior Recognition Day (2014)

Malala Yousafzai, Address to UN (July 12, 2013)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We should all be feminists (April 12, 2013)

Leymah Gbowee, Unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls (March 2012)

Julia Gillard, ‘The Misogyny Speech’ (2012)

Representative Maureen Walsh Remarks on ESSB 6239 (2012)

Aaron Huey: America's native prisoners of war (2010)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The danger of a single story, (July, 2009)

Barack Obama's Speech on Race  - A More Perfect Union (March 18, 2008)
Transcript: Barack Obama's Speech on Race 

Al Gore, The Nobel Peace Prize Speech(December 10, 2007)

Elie Wiesel, The Perils of Indifference, (April 12, 1999, Washington, D.C)

Nora Ephron, ‘Commencement Address To Wellesley Class Of 1996’ (1996)

Hillary Clinton, ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’ (1995)

Maya Angelou, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ (1993)

Mario Cuomo, 1984 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, (July 16, 1984)

Ursula K. Le Guin A Left-Handed Commencement Address (May 22, 1983)

Audre Lorde, "There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions" (1983)

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, “I Am For the Equal Rights Amendment.” (August 10, 1970)

Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr - Eulogy (April 3 1968, Indianapolis, IN)

Cesar E. Chavez, The Mexican-American and the Church (March 10, 1968)

Martin Luther King, Jr. A Time to Break Silence (April 3, 1967)
Transcript and Audio

Lyndon B. Johnson,  Speech Before Congress on Voting Rights (March 15, 1965)

Nelson Mandela Nelson Mandela: ‘I am prepared to die’  (April 20, 1964)

Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (April 3, 1964)

Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have A Dream (August 28, 1963)
Transcript and Audio

John F. Kennedy's Civil Right Address (June 11, 1963)
Transcript and Video