Tuesday, February 21, 2017

#SOL17: A Thin Place

March 8th will arrive--and with it, the one year anniversary of Rob's death. This evening I wondered if the distance between earth and heaven might be more permeable on such a day.

I come from Ireland and though I don't practice Celtic spirituality, I did grow up hearing stories about the afterlife and the spaces between here and there. It's a thin place when the boundaries between earth and heaven become more transparent. In such a space we can better sense the divine--commune with those who have gone before us. The Celts call these spaces, CAOL ÁIT.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the closing lines of Whitman's Song of Myself.  I would walk about reciting these lines in my mind--almost as if they were a mantra.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. 
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood. 
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

I wonder where Rob has stopped, who he now is, and what he means. He told me heaven was a parallel universe and I should sense him in the darkened sky.

"Leave breadcrumbs," I whispered as he was dying. "Leave breadcrumbs and when it is my time, I'll follow."

Friday, February 17, 2017

#SOL17: Late Day Light

Linens (2016)

It's mostly about the light--the way the late-day light falls through the back windows of our home.

Hopper light.

And seeing it today brought me back to those years when I tried to explain Hopper light to Rob as we sat on the porch of an old Maine inn. Or that time we sat for hours opposite of Nighthawks at the Art Institute and later braved the cold, cold wind to eat the best Barley soup at Russian Tea Time.

Late Day Light (Reilly, 2010, South Dakota)
Or that time we found ourselves in the Badlands and I looked at where he was pointing and lifted my camera to capture the way light drifts there and then settles. It's always been about the light with Rob since I first saw him sitting in the afternoon class where we met.

Mostly, it's the light today that tugs at my heart, that has me thinking about the man I lost and how that lost feels like a too-big hole.

During Rob's last weeks of life--when he finally came home after so many days lost in hospitals in order to spend his last days with Dev and me, the feel of sunlight amazed him. He would tell our friend Michael and me that it had been so long since he had felt the light.

And the light a year ago was so much like this afternoon. A bit warm. Beautifully thin and so perfect, I could not lower the blinds. I watched as it lit the table and chair as it did the linens on the hospital bed where Rob slept a year ago.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

#SOL17: Something About Love

A collage I made while Rob underwent spinal surgery. (1.8.16)


One of the last things I did with Rob while he was in the hospital was to paint. By then he had been moved to palliative care and the doctors needed to take him off of high flow oxygen in order for him to come home. His last request was to be able to come home to die. After spending 50 consecutive days in the hospital, he would come home two days later.  But on that Monday morning, Rob was very worried about coming off of the high flow oxygen, because he feared he would become oxygen-deprived. No matter how much assurance the medical staff gave, he still was concerned. He needed to be off the machine as it could not be used in non-medical settings. On the day after Valentine's day the doctors removed the machine and oxygen 
delivered through a nasal cannula.

The nurse checked in on him and said she could get him a sedative since he was so nervous. After she left I remembered that a few weeks earlier I had put together a small art kit for him to use. I asked him if he wanted to do some painting, and he brightened, and said, yes. I took out the kit and he selected some water color pencils, brushes, and one of his notebooks and he painted. When the nurse checked in again, she saw what was happening and quietly left us alone.

Rob painting while in Palliative Care. (2.15.16)

We each painted for about an hour and during that time Rob could see that he was getting enough oxygen and began to relax. He completed the painting he titled, Freedom Sunrise.

Freedom Sunrise (Rob's painting, 2.15.16)

Art I made using Rob's words and images.

I have thought often about the title to the work and cannot remember if I asked him about it that day. I have forgotten so much. What I do remember is that later I would promise Rob that I would create art using his words and images and I did so a few weeks after he died.


Play has a way of helping us redirect energies and on that day while Rob calmed himself by getting lost in the paintings he was making, I took solace in watching Rob paint and the slight respite from the many tensions and worries that had become more the norm by mid February. 

We were so us that morning. Just Rob and Mary Ann together in what we were each making--there on the page and also there in the room. We were wonderfully quiet that morning. 

Love is so often about what gets made with others.


When I think about our marriage, I think of the Greeks. In an interview with Krista Tippet, contemporary philosopher, Alain de Botton says,
The Ancient Greeks had a view of love which was essentially based around education, that what love means — love is a benevolent process whereby two people try to teach each other how to become the best versions of themselves (from here). 
We did try to occasion in one another better versions of self and learned how to do this fairly well by the time Rob retired from public school teaching and we became work partners. I cherish those two years we worked side-by-side. Partners at home and at work. What a gift. 


Love requires trust of other and self. It requires being wrong and saying so. It draws energy from humor and playfulness, and almost always--humility. Our relationship was as flawed as it was passionate, and across nearly three decades we took time to learn the many faces of being vulnerable. But early on, we were slow leaners, especially me. I am reminded how years ago when I was angry at Rob for something I no longer can remember, I had broken two Waterford wine glasses on the dining room table. I was starting on a third, when he asked me if I wanted him to put on a dress so I could talk more directly to my mother. It was a sobering moment and one that stays with me. We agreed later that night that we would have a safe word that when said meant the other was acting crazy. We promised to only say this word at such times. We practiced this until we no longer needed it. The break in the drama that these pauses allowed afforded us the time to name what hurt so much--what hurt so greatly that the only safe person in the world we could show such pain to was one another. 

None of marriage is particularly easy and even less so when we became parents. But trust did emerge and take hold. Trust bloomed full. 

Rob saw me though the deaths of both of my parents, as I did for him when his dad died. Love saw us comfort each other when we learned that the infant we expected to adopt in a matter of weeks was deemed no longer adoptable. His development revealed developed catastrophic disabilities and his life expectancy was reduced to mere months. The agency would not allow us to adopt him.  This was a time of grief and we clung to one another. Love showered us with joy when two months later we opened our hearts again and this time we became parents to Devon. 

It is these habits of love that helped us to become more courageous when feeling pain and joy, sorrow, and ambiguity. It is these habits of love that allowed us to remain committed to one another, to our marriage, and of course--to our son. About ten years ago at the wedding of two friends, the groom surprised us and made a toast, saying that he learned what a good marriage is by watching us. We worked hard.


Since Rob died, I think about our marriage. Now and then I recall a time when my better self was off on holiday. It's painful to recall these times. I wish I could have been better, kinder, and certainly--more patient. I wish now that I could have been the better wife, the better lover, the better partner. There are moments when I recall something spiteful or careless that I said to Rob--and I want to erase those moments and be able to say that I never caused him a moment of uncertainty or pain or sorrow. But I know that I did all three and did so more than once.  

But what I learned with my husband is that love requires no penance. It is more grace than forgiveness, more steady hand than flux. Rob did not need more from me than what I gave him and the truth is that what we each gave was more than enough. 

All those years ago on a snowy and cold December morning in the front parlor of Dave's home in Vermont when we each uttered that first pledge of love what we did not know, could not know then was that we were saying that in spite of and perhaps--because we were each so flawed, we would love one another without excuses. We would love the flawed person we were. And we did.  Accepting self and other as imperfect was the very first step in composing better versions of ourselves. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

#SOL17: The Constancy & Curiosities of Love

Last Valentine's Day with Rob in the Palliative Care Center


Today,  I am thinking of you who I don't know.

I see you waiting beside a bed--the lamp light casting a partial shadow on papers you have long forgotten you hold. Or perhaps it's your hand I see reaching to pick up a phone and silence the ringer. Noise shatters the near silence you have come to know. Or perhaps it is you who let winter's coldness in through the doors that still revolve as you rush beyond them into the well lit foyer of a hospital you know too well.

After the death, you may well wonder, how is it that you have found yourself here? Here where the shoreline fails to meet the edge of earth. Here where nothing is sure. Here where the widening space grows too big for your slight body to bridge. Here where machine sounds and the drone of 10,000 bees are impossibly loud. Here where you have forgotten the cadence of your own name.

This is what it means to know an ending, to accept the mortal limitations of self and the one you love.
You will not save him.
You will not save her.
You simply cannot do so.

And now, your life depends on knowing this.
Feelings will come later.


If only 
If only I.
If only I could.


During the last month of life, Rob struggled to breathe and I struggled to save him.
Is there anything as loud as the constant hum and drone of a machine pushing oxygen into lungs that will fail?
And they did.

I kept wanting to save him thinking, This. This is what I was born to do. 
I couldn't.
I didn't.

His life was never mine to save.


After his death, it was a sound like distant bees buzzing that I recall. A long, dark tunnel raised up from the sea like Jonah in the belly of the whale and I knew the comfort and pain of dark interiors.

There were narcotics to be bagged for the police. Liquids drugs to be washed down the kitchen drain. The funeral home to call for transport and clothes gathered and bagged. Everyone seemed to have a job in the aftermath but Dev and me.

I had been so very busy for months.


Still. So still.

My son sat next to the hospital bed and held his dead father's hand between the two of his. I gathered the adult diapers, the incontinence pads, the medical gowns, the yellow tubes of hydrophilic wound dressing, the too-many-to-count bottles of bedside-care foam body wash, the never-used contour bed pan--all of the things my Rob would have hated and dumped all of it into the garbage. I watched until my son released his father's hand. That was my job, one I promised Rob I would always do.

Watch over Dev, he told me an hour after we learned he had just weeks to live.
Watch over our son. Love him for me. 

To keenly watch is a language of love--one Rob taught me. I have been practicing this way of noticing for the last 30 years.

Later when it was time to sleep I took my phone as I had for the previous 6 months of nights and placed it next to the bed.

The phone did not ring.
There would be no calls from Rob ever again.


I couldn't quite drown the buzzing, not for weeks.
Someone later would tell me, nothing will be the same, and this is the one truth I know a year later.

Nothing is the same.
And some days I am the better for it.
Some days, not.


After the death,  it's the existential loneliness that most seems to cause distress. My marriage, like yours, shielded me from the truth that we are all alone.

Now loneliness seems sharper, more acute, in the absence of the man I loved and do love.


A year has past, folded itself and disappeared, like smoke, like ash.

A year later and I know like I know my own name that how I loved Rob in the years we had together and how he loved me mattered more than any charade of life saving I might have dreamed, surely desired.

We were so flawed in our love for one another.
So beautifully flawed.

And that slim truth--that our expressions of love were flawed, is what I hold closest to me these days.


Dear friend I do not know.
Dear friend who now enters this club of widows and widowers--a club you, nor I,  hardly wanted to join--the buzzing will clear.
Clarity will return.
Sadness will be redefined as too-sharp moments.

And there will be whole days of joy.

I repeat. There will be whole days of joy.

And beneath that joy--your one precious life will bloom in ways you could not name today. And I hope this blooming brings with it a measure of peace, and something unexpected.


A friend sent me two words when I was losing Rob, when I was watching him die.

She wrote, Stay curious.

I have. And staying curious has made the most difference.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

#SOL16: A Map, Not a Tracing

The start to a substrate


In mid-January of last year about 6 weeks before he would die, three gigantic books of house plans arrived by mail. Each book must have weighed 5 pounds and there were thousands of floor plans. My husband had been dreaming of a new home.

A single floor. No stairs and wheel chair accessible, he would tell me when I came to visit him at the rehab where he was trying to stand again.

Three days later, before I could even cart the last of the heavy books to the rehab, Rob would be transported back to the hospital and there we would learn that the prognosis was now terminal.


A year ago, I prayed so for a line of flight. We were in such need of a map, not a tracing.

Friday, February 10, 2017

#nf10for10: Nonfiction Picture Books

from Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey. Art by Syrian artist, Nizar Ali Badr.

Today is Non-Fiction Picture Book Sharing, #nf10for10, hosted by Cathy Mere, Reflect and Refine: Building A Learning Community and Mandy Robek, Enjoy and Embrace LearningBelow find ten nonfiction picture books I can't live without. These brought me comfort in a year where comfort was most needed. Amazing art work throughout each and informative as well.

From Circle
Baker, Jeannie. (2016). Circle. Sommerville, MA: Candlewick.

In this text with amazing signature styled collages Jeannie Baker is know for, we learn about the extraordinary journey of the godwit who flies annually from the Arctic to Australia and New Zealand. 

Detailed and lovely. 

I purchase every book Baker creates and I am never disappointed.

Campoy, Isabel & Theresa Howell. (2016). Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood. Illustrated by Rafael López. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

This is the true story of a neighborhood that was transformed by the work of muralist, Rafael López. The telling is narrative. I would pair this with images and information from the actual internet site of the artist that explains the project. 

From Polar Bear.
From Polar Bear

Desmond, Jenni. (2016). Polar Bear. Brooklyn, NY: Enchanted Lions Books.

This is the second in a series of books about endangered animals.  The first, The Blue Whale, caught my eye, as did Polar Bear. 

Desmond's mixed media art work does justice in conveying the size, might, and beauty of the polar bear while her words lets us know why this animal is endangered.

from The Blue Whale.

Garland, Michael. (2017). Birds Make Nests. New York: Holiday House.

Ever since I first read Michael Garland's Dinner at Magritte's to Devon when he was just a small boy, I have enjoyed Garland's books. His attention to detail, coupled with his digital artwork always makes for fine books to read and view.  Birds Make Nest is an example of a simple, yet detailed, informational text worth reading and viewing. For me this would be a staple in every primary classrooms.

Image result for i dissent ruth bader ginsburg leaves her mark
from I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

Levy, Deby. (2016). I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

This picture book biography about Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg just seems to gain such importance given the recent election in the United States that ushered in Donald Trump and his coterie of advisors.  Understanding the power of dissent feels so critical.

from Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey 
Nizar Ali Badr
Ruurs, Magriet. (2016). Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey (Arabic and English Edition). Art work by Nizar Badr. Translated by Falah Raheem. Victoria, BC: Orca Book Publishers.

Perhaps my favorite text of the group. Ruurs retells the journey of one refugee family fleeing for their lives from Syria to Europe. A stirring account. What makes this book so special, beyond the story, is the artwork. 

Nizar Ali Badr, a Syrian artist from the port city of Latakia, arranges stones to convey the journey. I could study the images he makes for years. 

The text is bilingual (English and Arabic).

from Because of an Acorn

Schaefer, Lola M. & Adam Schaefer. (2016). Because of an AcornIllustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

An informational text like so many of Lola Schaefer's books, uses simple and clearly written text to convey complicated scientific matters. In this text, Schaefer demonstrates causal relationships in nature. Children love her books.

from Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Steptoe, Javaka. (2016). Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Little Brown.

Winner of the 2017 Randolph Caldecott Medal
Winner of the 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award

Such a difficult story to tell, given the hard life Basquiat lived, and Steptoe does so deftly and beautifully. 

I read and reread this one. 
The art extends, not merely mimics, Basquait's style. Bravo.
Image result for the legendary miss horne
from The Legendary Miss Lena Horne.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. (2017). The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 

Lyrical biography of Lena Horne, the jazz singer and civil rights activist by poet Carole Boston Weatherford. There's great depth here--moving beyond the fabulous voice of Horne's to also embrace the activist.

The collage work by Elizabeth Zunon complements and extends the written text. I also enjoyed and would recommend Weatherford's biography of Fanie Lou Hamer, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer (mixed media artwork by Ekua Holmes

from The Secret Project
Winter, Jonah and Jeanette Winter. (2017). The Secret ProjectNew York: Beach Lane Books.

Mother and son work together to create a retelling of the Manhattan Project--the making of the first atomic bomb. The written text is unadorned and straight forward. Jeannette Winter's illustrations extend meaning, such as the panel that shows us one artist who is also out in the desert, but making art not bombs (Georgia O'Keeffe). 

A dozen picture books I am anticipating...ordered by release date. (Note: these books are fiction and nonfiction)

from Grand Canyon

from My Beautiful Birds

from Bee and Me

Thursday, February 9, 2017