Saturday, September 24, 2016

#SOL16: A Labor

from my art journal, 9.23.16 (gesso, acrylic paint, ink, pan pastel, stabilo pencil)

Before Rob died, living life was rather effortless, easy even. Of course, there were sad moments. Disappointments, for sure that might shift my attention, raise some tensions. But underneath the day-to-day happenings was a smoothness to life. The pledge my husband and I inspired in one another was a bridge that joined us, creating a location that was our life.


Now the bridge is gone.


Some years ago I was reading an essay by Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking" and a line midway through the text caught my attention and I noted it--largely because it baffled me.

"The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream."


What is foregrounded and backgrounded is conditioned by what gets joined and where one stands. For Rob and me, our bridge that gathered landscape and river, husband and wife was nothing more than love.

We flowed in the surety of marriage.


What we made across those decades became the location where banks and river flowed into focus. Whatever came our way, did so. We stood well as we had a space to stand in. I could have lived alongside my husband for a thousand more years, nay, a hundred thousand years and the easiness between us and the larger world would have remained.


Now my days have a labor to them. I am at times more self-conscious and lonely than I can recall being before. More than anything else, to be a widow is to know that living is a labor. It is a weight too hard to lift--a weight that presses body to earth and there is no bridge now that can gather all that has been lost.

What has been lost is its own weight.


Some days there is a desire that rises up within me in a fierce manner.  I hear that frantic animal want sound come from me and I know it is Rob I am seeking.  But he has been lost.  And it is not death I court, but rather a miracle. For surely I have hurt every bit as much as Lazarus's two sister did all those years ago. And my God, am I not a Mary too?

I want a miracle--my husband to come back to me--whole and healed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

#SOL16: Love Unfurls

from my art journal, 9.21.16 (acrylic paint, gesso, pan pastel, stabilo pencil)

Devon was about 8 years old when Darty died. His pet Guinea pig lived for two years in a cage in his bedroom. It was early morning--the second day of spring holiday when I heard him clomp down the steps. He came into the kitchen and told me with a slight tremble in his voice, "I think there's something wrong with Darty. He's not moving." Rob had left an hour earlier to go to work and as I climbed the stairs I wondered what I'd find, hoping it would not be my son's dead pet.

But it was.

And as my face confirmed what Devon had hoped would not be true, he broke down and sobbed. After ushering him out, I closed his bedroom door and held him as he cried. I'm sure I said what I thought was soothing, more than likely something about love, but really at these times it is the sound of comfort, more so than the words spoken, that seem to matter most. Murmurs are Morse code for love.

After a while he settled and I decided it would be best to get us out of the house. So I called Rob to tell him the news and we made a quick plan.  I took Devon for the haircut he was supposed to get, then to a movie, and to a local diner for some lunch. Meanwhile, Rob came home after school, cleared the cage from Devon's room, and placed Darty in a box. It's odd the things you notice at such times.  But when we returned home it was the absence of hay that normally littered the rug in Dev's room that I first noticed was gone. Rob had everything in Dev's room neat and clean.

Like Devon, Rob too had loved Darty. He and Dev would play with Darty most days, letting him out of his cage so he could run around; feeding him bits of carrot. And so that afternoon, it was decided that we would bury Darty out where the woods meet our backyard. That night Devon carved a marker that he wanted to place on the grave. The next day, we held a funeral for Darty. We all stood in the far corner of the yard looking down on the rocks that topped Darty's grave. The marker was round and small and carried the single initial D.  We each told a 'Darty" story and later I recorded Dev's story on a piece of paper and we went back outside and set it on fire. We were quiet as we watched the smoke rise towards heaven, much as we had done two years earlier when Rob's dad had died.

Love and loss are more about relationships, than categories.


Marriages are built on such moments, the foundation that supports those days that surely come when love feels less certain, less sure. I recall the tenderness, the fierce love Rob revealed as he sheltered Devon murmuring words I could not discern as we stood at the grave. I don't know what he said, but the tone carried more that the words as did the strong arm wrapped around my boy's slender shoulders.

Just eight years after that spring passing on a Wednesday afternoon in February, Rob and I waited for my oldest brother to bring our son to the hospital. The hours before anyone else arrived were the most intimate ones I have ever spent with Rob. He was so lucid and when Dev arrived we somehow found the words to tell him that his dad would not be getting better. We told him that the cancer had progressed and that no treatment, not even the immunotherapy could reverse or slow the spread of cancer. We told him that his dad had just a few weeks to live.

The memory of Devon collapsing his six-foot body on the hospital bed across his dad's legs sobbing a too-wounded animal sound that wound down to barely a whimper leaves me feeling sick again. To know such sorrow, such distress is to fully know, for the moment, what human loss is.

Even then, on a day Rob was confronted by his own mortality, his thoughts were of our welfare--Devon's and mine. It was our care he thought of immediately. It was earlier that day when he told me to take care of Devon, to nurture his passions and interest. He told me to live brilliantly and asked only that I get him out of the hospital so he could home to die. A week later he would be transported from the hospital's palliative care center to our home. He had spent the previous 50 days in the hospital and more than 100 days there since September.


On a snowy December morning in the front parlor of Dave's Vermont home, I could not know when I pledged to love and honor Rob all those years ago what such a vow might actually mean. I simply could not know.

Love unfurls across the years; a sail to the wind and it all passes so very quickly.  And though the first flush of love is truly passionate and giddy and feels so good--it is the deep steadiness of love I now miss the most. Loss (re)informs love, allowing for such acute clarity that what matters most is revealed with definition. My husband's deep love for our son fills me with a quiet certainty I now know as a blessing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

#SOL 16: A New Geography

from my art journal, 9.19.16  (acrylic paint, deli paper, marker, stabilo pencil)


Early spring I planted pots and pots of flowers and placed them on the front steps leading to my home. Bright red geraniums and variegated vinca vines spilling out of French blue pots. It was only a couple of weeks after Rob had died and late March remained unseasonably warm. One Saturday, with too much time and too idle hands, I filled a dozen or more blue pots with plants.

Something must live.

This evening I noticed how vibrant the geraniums have remained all these months later. They will likely bloom longer than Rob fought to live. That first weekend after we received the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, I watched lectures about treatment from Sloan Kettering late into the night, one after the next and then cried off and on while seated on the floor of the bathroom shower, seated long after the water had turned cold counting off the months Rob would likely live. And the only moment of comfort I remember was when I finally thought, "So long as you can touch him, nothing bad has happened."

Surely he would live.


By that April, the need for Thoreau's 'tonic of wildness' rose up and no suburban geography could quell what Rob's death had unseated. In chapter 17 of Thoreau's Walden, he explains,
"We need the tonic of wildness...we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature...We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander" (p. 265).
I live a mile or so from a modest forest and it was there I found myself wandering further and further each day that spring, breadcrumbs be damned, and it was only tired legs that found me heading home when I so wanted to stay lost.

When the world is less familiar there is comfort in what is left unnamed.


Tonight, with autumn coming on and the geraniums blooming red petals like a color-crazed Morse code,  I want to stop a moment and let my fingers decipher intention. What is it I am learning? I want to pause and say out loud that the tracing is never a map. That which is traced is always a system closed and I cannot walk where I walked with Rob before.

Grief is an unexplorable tension--an infinitely wild geography where the logic of boundaries fail. Here there is a language of starts and stops--utterance I cannot seem to hear and yet know to be true like my very breath. To trod a path new to the feet--is to know momentarily that there is no coming back, there is only becoming and though this knowledge hurts, it also is the first moment of grace.

After so much inconceivable loss,
there is no
                going back.

                                 There is no back.
                                 There is no

On the days when the pain feels unrelenting, it is good to stand in this new country, to hold in my heart an incomplete map, and imagine that over that next rise is life pasturing freely.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Pleasure of Reading: 80+ Books I Leaned on This Year

(M.A. Reilly, England, 2012)

I read often.  Daily.

My reading habits give me pause, especially this last year as I consider how reading has been life saving. 

No exaggeration. 


Tonight I am thinking about the immense gift that comes from reading and listening to books. I have turned to books to understand what was happening to Rob and then after his death-- what was happening to Devon and me.  I sought books to think more deeply about spiritual matters and the afterlife, to dwell in essays and think about the way writers compose.  

I sought poetry to say what must be said. 

I read and listened to fiction to escape the confines of this life, to slip loose from what tethered me to sadness. I reread several books--old friends of a sort. I read what Rob had been reading and after he passed I held these close as they had become even more dear.  Eventually, I read professionally when a friend shipped me several new books from a publishing house and I dove in. I read a photography book, dwelling in it for a long while.  Erasure was Rob's last 'book' gift to me. 


Thinking about this reading life has led me to ponder what we teach at school and what is most necessary. 
And so tonight I am wondering do we teach children to love the written word, to want to dwell in the sounds of language?  
Do we clear curricular obligations so that we can apprentice young people in books both heard and read?  
Do we tell them put away those sticky notes and pencils and questions and for goodness sake all of those close reading tasks and urge them to laugh a bit?
Do we share with them the delight that reading creates? 
Do we share our reading lives?
Do we share the importance of books when we are puzzled? Forlorn? Lonely? Happy? Pleased? Wanting?

Do our children know the comfort reading brings? 


Two lists.

During the next few weeks, I will be turning to these books to read:
  1. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (Patrick Phillips arriving next week)
  2. Commonwealth (Ann Patchett)
  3. An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers (Danny Gregory)
  4. The Nix (Nathan Hill)
  5. Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue)
  6. Blue Laws (Kevin Young)
  7. Another Brooklyn (Jacqueline Woodson)
  8. My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)

Since late December (2015), some of the books I have read and listened to (from most recent): 

  1. World of Made and Unmade: A Poem (Jane Mead)
  2. The Laughter of the Sphinz (Michael Palmer)
  3. Rapture: Poems (Sjohnna McCray)
  4. Half Bad (Sally Green)
  5. The Afterlife (not sure of the author. I came home to find this waiting for me from a friend)
  6. Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton)
  7. A Day at the Beach and Other Brief Diversions (Jeffrey Michaels)
  8. The Genesee Diary (Henri Nouwen)
  9. Becoming Wise (Krista Tippett)
  10. Daily Meditation book: Healing After Loss
  11. The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
  12. The Confident Creative (Cat Bennett)
  13. Flow Magazine
  14. The New Yorker (each week)
  15. Still Writing (Dani Shapiro)
  16. Poem Central (Shirley McPhillips)
  17. Teaching Globally (Kathy Short, et. al)
  18. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig)
  19. Big Magic (Elizabeth Gilbert)
  20. Love and Living (Thomas Merton)
  21. Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings (Thomas Merton)
  22. In the Dark Before Dawn : Poems (Thomas Merton)
  23. The Battle for North Carolina's Coast (Stanley Riggs)
  24. Hello from Heaven (Bill Guggenheim)
  25. The Inner Voice of Love (Henri Nouwen)
  26. Why Grow Up (Susan Neiman)
  27. A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis I read this over and over..)
  28. When Husbands Die (Shirley McNally)
  29. Yugel: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump (Trudeau)
  30. People's Pops: 55 Recipes for Ice Pops, Shave Ice (Nathalie Jordi)
  31. The Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle)
  32. Jesus' Son: Stories (Denis Johnson)
  33. The Light of the World: A Memoir (Elizabeth Alexander)
  34. True Vision: Authentic Art Journaling (L.K. Ludwig)
  35. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Pauline Boss)
  36. Widow to Widow (Genevieve Ginsburg)
  37. The House by the Sea: A Journal (May Sarton)
  38. The Little Paris Bookshop:A Novel (Nina George)
  39. Perseverance (Margaret Wheatley)
  40. The Other Side of Sadness (George Bonanno)
  41. Turning to One Another (Margaret Wheatley)
  42. New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Mary Oliver)
  43. Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
  44. Risking Everything: 110 Poems
  45. The Gene: An Intimate History (Siddgarta Mukherjee)
  46. Pilgrin at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard)
  47. Felicity: Poems (Mary Oliver)
  48. Heartbroken: Healing from the Loss (Gary Roe)
  49. I'm Grieving as Fast as I Can (Linda Feinberg)
  50. Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems (John Keats)
  51. On Grief and Grieving (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross)
  52. The Cancer Journals (Audre Lorde)
  53. Mortality (Christopher Hitchens)
  54. When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)
  55. The Essential Rumi
  56. Second Firsts: Live, Laugh and Love Again (Christina Rasmussen)
  57. Getting to the Other Side of Grief (Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge)
  58. Gabriel: A Poem (E.D. Hirsch)
  59. Count on Me: Tales of Sisterhood and Fierce Friendships (Adriana Lopez, ed.)
  60. H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald)
  61. Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope (Anne Lamont)
  62. Being Mortal (Atul Gawande)
  63. Radical Remissions: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds (Kelly A. Turner)
  64. My Seneca Village (Marilyn Nelson)
  65. The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown)
  66. Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Pena)
  67. The Aran Islands (John M. Synge)
  68. Radio Benjamin (Walter Benjamin)
  69. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Walter Benjamin)
  70. Echoes of Memory (John O'Donohue)
  71. The Collected Works of Charles Baudelaire
  72. Erasure (Fazal Sheikh)
  73. Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
  74. A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein (Palle Yougrau)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

#SOL16: The Unexpected

Soar ( M.A. Reilly, 2014)


To live brilliantly is to live presently and to live in service to other. Thomas Merton writes,
"Love is our true destiny. We do not find meaning of life by ourselves alone--we find it with another" (p. 27). 
I think about Merton's words and the truth of them and how the world felt more in focus alongside Rob. I was more willing to take risks, seek out the unusual, fail well.  To be well loved is to learn to love yourself as you are, not as you think you ought to be. Love floods even those cranky, dark thoughts that surface now and then infusing them with light and goodness. Love tells us to rethink our disappointments; to find kindness in our faults; to honor our failings. Love privileges imperfection. Rob loved me not because I was so perfect, but rather because I am so flawed. These life learnings are the ones I need most now.


Some days I feel out of sync with the wider world, as if true north had lost its points and I know the general direction so long as the landscape is familiar.  But shift the landscape and I become less certain of my steps.  This is not because of some issue with the world, but rather because I am cloudy, off-kilter and have had difficulty seeing. And, odd as this may sound, all of this is rather good news, not because I fancy being cloudy and off-kilter, but rather because I can see myself here on the planet, standing presently.

I have not been able to take a bird's eye view of myself in months--to stand far enough outside my experiences and see where I am.  I know insular days. Grief expects such days, lingers alongside such days, like an old friend you have come to know. But such dwelling, although necessary at first, becomes less so with time and can be disrupted through reflection.  For it is reflection, this writing and art making I have been doing, that helps clarity to be restored--the long view to be seen.


Grieving has its own time. No clock on earth reveals its many starts and stops. Some weeks after Rob died someone said that to have experienced and loss such love will require a lot of time to get through. I think I may have smiled and nodded, but I was frightened by the comment. Terrified. Who wants to stay in such pain? But like everything here, pain too morphs into something unexpected. Who could have predicted that out of such sorrow a deeper understanding of love would bloom? 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

#SOL16: Hold Back Time

From my art journal (September 11, 2016 - gesso, acrylic paint, Stabilo pencil, digital text)


I have been trying to hold back time--to stop the 14th of September from arriving. I was unaware I was thinking this. Some ideas rest well beneath conscious thought and this apparently is one. Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking writes that after the death of her husband, she was
"... in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone...I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking" (pp. 32-33).

And like Didion's thinking then, I have been believing that if this year's September 14th did not arrive, then there would be the possibility to fix that Monday, a year ago. I could say to Rob, Don't get that port put in. Don't let that surgeon ever touch you again. Bad things are going to happen. Things we won't be able to fix. Let's sleep in. Don't set the alarm. Don't do it. Stay home. We'll go to a different hospital. Trust me. Trust me.

I think, I could save my husband. I could.
This is magical thinking.


Late March, I read Didion's book. At that time, I was stuck in a too-thick fog and I did not think about the title, nor consider the idea of magical thinking. I was more caught up in her narration of events. Tragedy was so familiar.  I knew daily trauma more than I remembered life before Rob's illness and death. And so Didion's series of events that felt so relentless, made sense. A friend recently asked if I had read the book and I said, Yes, thinking it had no effect. A week ago I returned to it and was quite surprised to find it so new, so unread.

Early this morning I was out walking when I went to record an idea on my phone. I recorded, I want to hold back time. Then I looked to see what other things I had recorded working down a list until I clicked an untitled recording from last March and literally stumbled when Rob's phone greeting began. "This is Rob..." I remembered that before I turned his phone in, I recorded the greeting. This morning I hardly recognized the sound of it.  It simply was not as I remembered.

Grief and time shade memory, shape what we know.


Didion tells us, "Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life" (p. 27).  After six months, I feel I should be further along, but I know those waves--they burst over me, pulling me from this life I am trying to make and I remember Rob is dead.

Sometimes there is no wave, no fit. Rather my stomach suddenly free falls and fear clenches and I just know something terrible will happen and then, then I remember: it has.


Magical thinking is largely reserved for the bereaved, for the lost, for those of us whose grasp on the present is less certain. We look so normal, so courageous and in many ways we are neither and both.

Magical thinking distances us from grief, like a mental barrier between the terror grief signifies and the desperate wanting we know like skin.  It insulates us from heart break.

At some point each week I make a brief inventory, noting how well I have gotten on. I don't mean to do this, I just do. I note that I am putting one foot in front of the other and that I am living. Sometimes I am surprised to find myself trying to strike a bargain with God, offering up my goodness, my small slice of normalcy for the return of my husband.

Friday, September 9, 2016

#SOL 16: Aftermath

from my art journal, 9.9.16 (Gesso, digital text, found papers, ink, acrylic paint)


I measure time in relationship to Rob's life and death. I don't mean to do this, but I quickly calculate the years Rob lived beyond a given event. When the Towers fell, my husband was in his mid-40s. Our son was just two. That morning, Rob was teaching, I was at my job in Newark, and Devon was with Mina, the woman who took care of him each day. As soon as I heard, I phoned Rob. Later I would race to get Devon. I knew he was fine, but like many parents, I suspect, I just needed to hold him--breathe in something good. When Rob came home that evening we stayed up late and he told me how as a teenager he had watched the Towers being built. My husband was born and raised in Brooklyn and would later work in a family business in Hell's Kitchen before leaving it to teach.

This morning as I listened to shows highlighting the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I thought how strange it is that Rob died before 15 years elapsed. Who could have imagined such a thing? Certainly not us. Then, we were so young in our marriage, in our life, a baby whose age we still calculated by months. It seems impossible that the three of us would have such little time. It's best to not know.


All day I have been sick to my stomach. Some days are like this--blindsided by sorrow and longing and I cannot quiet the noise in my head. I miss my husband in ways words cannot convey. Six months ago Rob had just died and I realize now that the shock insulated me. I could narrate what was happening at the moment, but there was no future I could see or worry about. Now, I am more aware of some of the long term ramifications of Rob's death. I am a single parent with a son who has just begun his last year of high school. Apart from my love for Devon, there is little else in my life that feels solid, reliable.

This week I bought Devon a car.  I insisted only that the car be as safe as possible and he did the research. As the medium, Anne Marie told me a few weeks ago, Devon did in fact get a black sedan--a Ford Fusion. Rob was a huge admirer of automobiles. He loved to drive. He loved to look at cars and was always pointing out new car models as we drove.

See that MXK, he would say, or I like the line of the new...

And so it was impossible to not feel the loss amplified as I filled in paperwork at the dealership. Rob would have loved to have been advising Devon on the car selection and would have been down right giddy at the dealership. It would have been Rob who drove us to get the car, not my older brother. After we picked up the car, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant and it took such willpower to not lay my head on the table and just sob.


At the end of August, I received an email from a former student of Rob's asking to meet. She graduated from Reed College last May and before she headed back to a Zen monastery in Oregon she wanted to meet me and talk. And so we met for the first time and she told me that her senior thesis had been greatly influenced by Rob. He had been her 8th grade English teacher. As she was formulating her thesis and writing, she had been in contact with Rob who read and responded to her work. The major works she analyzed were written by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and David Foster Wallace--all authors that Rob introduced her to in 8th grade. I told her she must have been an exceptional student given the authors and her young age and shared that Rob had spoken of her often. Chloe told me that the day before Rob was diagnosed with cancer she and Rob met at a Starbucks so they could discuss her thesis. I recalled that as I was at work. I also remembered how Rob would later fret about telling several of his former students about the cancer.


Every waking moment is filled with a reminder of Rob.

Every moment.

Every waking minute.

This afternoon when the mail arrived I found a bill from a hospital (do they ever end?) and the latest issue of The Threepenny Review--a magazine Rob subscribed to. The symposium for this issue is on crying. Yes, crying. I turn to page 18 and began to read. Most of the pieces felt overly contrived--carefully coiffured texts that felt forced and raised no emotions. What I could tell them about crying would fill the review.

On the next to last page--a poem written by Philip Levine had me pausing. He writes:

...The day is fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used...

And what catches me here is the way Levine's words fit how I feel. Each day as it unfolds is imbued with remembrances of Rob. Some engender peace, but many catch me off guard, leaving me slammed by all that Rob no longer can experience. There's no newness to the days.

Yesterday afternoon I was slicing fruit and as I cut into a strawberry I thought about the countless bowls of fresh fruit I made last fall as we combated cancer with good nutrition.  Now Rob will never taste a strawberry again, he'll not see his son drive, nor attend his high school graduation.  He didn't see him dressed for the prom, or watch him drive his new car home and remain in it, puttering long after he had parked it for the night. He won't read his son's college essay or the book I have begun writing. He won't take anymore road trips like the one we took back in 2012.


When Hurricane Sandy hit we rode out the storm at home, surveyed the damage to our home and property and the day after living with no water, heat, or electricity we left  to find a hotel. There were none near us with vacancies. And so after spending the night in a jacked up pricy chain hotel 40 minutes north of home, I asked, "Why don't we go to Maine?"

We were all off from work and school and Rob said, "Great idea. Call and see if we can get a room."

The first spring I knew Rob we went to Maine and stayed in an inn that was newly opened. We went back each year and it was a favorite of all three of us. I phoned there, made the reservation, and we piled in the blue Pacifica and went off on holiday. We had a grand time and when I thought about our future I thought of it as road trips where Rob and I would photograph and write about the world.

This is how we lived. This is a small part of what has been lost and what can be no more.


It is the small things that comfort and undo the widow. It is the small things that offer and disrupt the knowable structures in our lives. We cling to the knowable now that the earth has tilted so.

We make inventories of the things we know. We know the wing of the cardinal as it slants between branches of trees, the sound of the garage door clicker, the pressure of our husbands' hands gripping the back of our necks, the long sighs, and the losses that refuse to hold still.

Death strips the futures we sought. It steals wanted possibilities and leaves uncertainty in its wake.