Tag Archives: grief

Music to Have Feelings By

28 Dec
Very_Merry_Mixup

My most favorite Hallmark Channel holiday movie this year!

There have been at least 107 Christmas trees in my living room since October. Or maybe even more. It’s hard to get an estimate, because some of them are the same tree twice or thrice or… multiple times. Cuz, like, I love to watch holiday movies, okay? And they’re definitely NOT of the cinematic classic variety. They’re absolutely the most low-budget, thrillingly flawed Hallmark Channel productions imaginable.

But don’t be mistaken, I don’t have an actual tree in my living room. Because I don’t celebrate Christmas. Well, at least, not at the moment.

(That’s called a cliffhanger, movie fans.)

Here, let me cue some slow but sweet instrumental music to set the tone for my heartbreaking and yet hopeful story…

I am a girl who loves love. All forms and expressions of love are welcome here. And I’ll tell ya, some of the best, most upbeat, least conflicted love stories are found in holiday movies. In these delightful romps through the full spectrum of new love, old love, found love, lost love and imaginary love, amidst the clumsy continuity errors, extremely fake New York City sets and inexplicable Canadian accents (almost all Hallmark movies are evidently filmed north of the border), if there happens to fall a tense moment, it’s only a super brief one. Maybe for approximately ten minutes, our heroine believes that her love interest might not be the man she imagined. But that’s quickly forgotten in a hail of other love subplots involving unexpected revelations from family members, emerging affection from new friends and/or the children of the hero in question, and maybe some appropriately cuddly moments with domesticated animals, too.

So, I guess I’m admitting that the reason I watched even more holiday movies than usual this year (after I ran out of free streaming movies, I actually BOUGHT several Hallmark productions on Amazon Prime), is because I needed to keep cataloging all the best moments of seeing family and friends and finding love even when it seems impossible. I used the movies as instruction manuals in addition to their very successful provision of tinselly distraction.

You see, this was the year I paused Christmas before I start it again the way I like to see it best. It’s only the second time I’ve celebrated the holiday without my mother, and in the first year, I made a valiant effort to go to a friend’s house and celebrate with her. But this year I owned the truth of how much I miss the one true Christmas lover in my family. I stayed home, I declined plans, and instead I went to lunch and saw the new Quentin Tarantino film with some of my Jewish friends.

In response to that choice, even without any soundtrack music to tell me how to feel, I can actually hear my mom sighing a woeful “ohhhhhh,” in her Minnesota accent. Yes, it sounds so sad, the inevitable life-changing happy ending could write itself. And in fact, it did. (Cue upbeat, hopeful music.)

My ideal version of Christmas is just an amplified version of how I endeavor to live all year long. I love seeing friends and connecting with family as often as possible. I try to move with joy and compassion in my heart, and from the depths of the most average (or below average) day, I try to smile at fellow sidewalk travelers and subway riders even when it’s 100 degrees outside and we don’t have any Christmas music to tell us to cheer up. I really try to be that Hallmark movie girl, even though I’m secretly also feeling like an extremely whiny girl who doesn’t believe her own script.

So. Here we are in the last six minutes. (My mom and I loved watching Hallmark movies, and we analyzed the scripts constantly, loving the guarantee of an endorphin rush during those final six minutes of the movie, when everything seems like it couldn’t get worse and then it all comes together for the payoff.) Holiday cheer arrived in my house in a whole bunch of scripted and unscripted ways this Christmas, all of which I cherished. And I have to say that my mother would be very happy to see how well I am doing.

But the endorphin rush came tonight. When my one true love, my Unrequited always-gonna-be-a-friend friend, sent me a photo of his two sons each holding a copy of the “Pocket Pema Chödrön” book that I carried with me on our trip to Spain and France last month. (Yes! I went to Europe with him! And he also sent me a really great book for Christmas!) He borrowed the Pema book from me while we traveled from one scenic locale to the next, and I knew it made an impression on him. But tonight, to see those two boys, whom I have known for ten years, grinning in front of the Christmas tree and holding their book for a photo they knew was being sent to me… that was enough to make me utter my own Minnesota-accented “Ohhhhhhhhh”—but in the “sooooo cuuuute” way.

I am loved. And I love. So the magic of the season worked after all, even if I didn’t go through the old familiar motions this year. I am going to keep building new annual traditions that are founded in my everyday heart. If by loving without expectation I receive those amazing six minutes of happy ending, then I’m going to keep watching!

Fools Rush In

26 Dec

fuzzOn the scale of coincidences, with zero being “total disconnect” and 10 being “amazing cosmic intervention that could cause one to drop everything and change one’s life,” I think I just had a 10++ event.

Just a moment ago, I opened my laptop to write a whiny post about how the wrong guys fall in love with me, with some incisive analysis of the horrible realization that leapt into my mind the other day: “There is nothing worse than someone wanting more from you than you are willing to give.” For appropriate musical accompaniment, I clicked on a WNYC link that carried me safely to the bliss of jazz standards. And when the stream began, it was mid-song, precisely at the moment at the end of “Fools Rush In”, when the singer sums up the whole scenario for us. Awestruck by the serendipity, I started typing immediately, transcribing the lyrics as they came, and not knowing how many lines I’d get before I could stop:

Fools rush in
where wise men never go
But wise men never fall in love
So how are they to know?

When we met, I felt my life begin
so open up your heart
and let this fool rush in

***

And that was it, exactly the right amount of information to help me see my damaged heart more clearly. All those truths, laid out right in a row for me to contemplate immediately upon my attempt to discuss the inner convolutions of my heart. Suddenly, I seem to have retired my status as the fool in favor of being the wise girl, rejecting two perfectly nice suitors because “there wasn’t any chemistry” and “I just wasn’t attracted to him.”

Let’s parse the facts. Wise people never fall in love because they’re wise, and hence they protect themselves from a long list of harmful effects, including, but not limited to:

• Comfort and understanding
• Affectionate regard for one’s wellbeing
• Having someone to lean on/cling to/miss/long for
• Romance
• Thrills and surprises
• A date on a national holidays (When Harry Met Sally)
• Assistance and support for personal and professional pursuits
• Rides to and from the airport
• Someone who can hold your coat/purse/popcorn/heart
• Thoughtful responses to trifling problems through to major life crises
• Flowers

Wise indeed. In the past, when I whimpered and moaned, “You could have called me,” or intoned, “If you’re stressed out, you can come over here and I’ll help you,” I actually had no idea that the aloof anyman on the other end of the conversation was in fact well aware that he had the option to take succor in my presence. He just had absolutely zero interest in taking me up on it.

Now I know how he felt. Feels. Is doomed to feel forever in an independent hell of one’s own making.

Until love can run tackle through my wounded heart, I’ll just have to get used to being the fool. Chasing aloof men is easier than being the strangely complicated wise girl.

Connect-mas

25 Dec

treeA week ago, my brother and I divided up the remainder of our mother’s estate. Of utmost concern to her in her waning life was the legacy of our greatest family treasure: her collection of Christmas ornaments. Together, we amassed this pageant of emblems, building on the Scandinavian pieces from our parents’ early years, adding glass and painted baubles we created as toddlers on a sunny day in our kitchen. The post-divorce years of our triumvirate holidays saw the accumulation of still more items of significance, each with a back story that my brother and I cherished. We developed voices and gestures for certain pieces and imbued them with our crafty wit. Some characters on the tree were purely comical, some were beautiful. All were part of our Christmas legend.

Every year that my mother was alive, she lamented the Christmas we weren’t having. Gathered around the tree, presents unwrapped, she would apologize for not giving us more. And every year, my brother and I begged her not to apologize. We were there for her, for us. We didn’t need a pile of presents to feel loved.

In the end, our mother knew that the ornaments were the most important collection she could leave to us, and she asked often about their whereabouts. My brother was the one who shipped them home to New York, and until we sat down with his girlfriend and pondered our bounty of colorful memories, I have to confess I was not really that bothered with whether or not I kept any of the trinkets.

I have long been the bah-humbug of the family. Not a Scrooge, exactly, but definitely a non-believer. I was sure that following my mother’s passing I could abandon any obligation to celebrate this busy-body, materialistic holiday. But then my brother unfolded and unwound the bits of red and green tissue paper in which she had last wrapped the ornaments, and my tiny Grinch heart flinched awake.

My mother loved Christmas. She covered every surface with decorations. Ridiculous snowmen, tacky Santas, red and green hand towels, even special kitchen towels and an entire set of Christmas dishes. Most of which we trashed before she passed. I am glad I wasn’t there to see where they ended up… but I remember my mother was a bit sad, if not surprised, to learn that we didn’t want her prized Christmas dish set.

With the ornaments sorted into collections of similar traits in front of us, my brother and I did what our mother taught us to do. We quietly, and peacefully, talked about how we each felt about every piece. We shared memories, we gauged our levels of attachment to certain bits of our heritage, and we generously gave each other more than we knew we could give. I know that my mother, observing this exchange, would be so proud that my brother and I are still the devoted friends and caretakers of all that she cherished about our family. We were in it together, and we are in it still. We love each other with an understanding and the gentle perception and encouragement that she constantly offered to us.

Packing up my new objects near the tree that my brother and his girlfriend had set up in their apartment, I promised to get my own small tree this year. I have never had a tree in any of my homes in the past 20 years. But I was going to use these decorations so as not to disappoint my mother.

This Christmas is such a strange and significant one for me, in a million ways. I quit the job I’ve held for 16 years, finishing on the last Friday before the holiday break. I listed my apartment on a vacation rental service and accepted a reservation from two guests who would occupy my home from December 21 until January 6, the day before my birthday, January 7—the day on which my mother would take down the tree. January 7 is the Feast of the Epiphany in my mother’s Catholic tradition, and it’s Christmas Day for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

There was so much significance in all these dates… but still I dragged my feet on buying a tree, not knowing where I would be staying for Christmas while I had paying guests in my home. Then, in a miracle worthy of the Hallmark movies that my mother and I loved to watch, I discovered that the friend for whom I would be house-sitting had a little, living Christmas tree, decorated only with lights in his apartment. It needed ornaments. And I had ornaments.

The plot thickened when in the last few days before the holiday, a Hallmark Movie Man appeared in my life, and in direct accordance with a plot my mother and I would have written had we ever actually created the Hallmark scripts we wanted to develop, the Hallmark Movie Man melted my heart with stories of the gifts he was buying for friends and family. He was running all over town, thinking about them with so much joy, going to the post office before the rush each day to send more parcels, wrapping presents each night before going to sleep. So, inspired by his generosity, I started procuring gifts for friends and family, too. I went into shops with a smile and saw pieces and ideas that would bring holiday cheer to those around me. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in my heart.

Then came the best part, and I know it was sponsored by my mother. I had no expectations for opening any gifts on Christmas Day this year, and I was fine with that. I didn’t really like Christmas, remember? But Hallmark Movie Man, seeing my grief over my mother and knowing that I’d opted to be alone on Christmas morning, surprised me with three separate packages filled with wrapped gifts for me to put under my tiny tree.

And so it came to be that I have presents to unwrap, from a Hallmark Movie Man, on Christmas Day.

Behold dear reader! Right now, right this very second, as I sit the sunlit kitchen of my temporary holiday accommodations in Brooklyn, as I type about my unfrozen holiday heart, I am hearing the notes of “Silver Bells” drifting up from the sidewalk outside. As the sound grows closer, the crooner sings, “It’s Christmastime in the city,” and instantly I am crying. As the music grows louder, and I realize that it’s someone passing by, delivering a recorded version of caroling. A glimpse out the window shows a man pushing a dolly festooned with a portable CD player and speakers, head down and serious.

Seeing him, I have to say out loud to my mother in the ongoing conversation I keep with her, “Thank you, mom. Thank you. I saw him. I heard it. I’m glad I’m back in New York, and I know you would have loved what just happened.”

Writing about her now, with that amazing coincidence rolling by, I will tell you most assuredly that I believe in the connection wrought by Christmas. Whether or not you celebrate the holiday, this time after the Winter Solstice is a time to pause, take a break from work, and hang out with the family. And whether or not that family looks like the one you expected to have, or if the celebration falls short of what you see on TV, remember, what you’re going to take away are the silly, little incidental bits of tradition that bind you together. What you’re overlooking is what you’ll treasure later. I assure you.

Stay With Me

1 Nov

nature's gold

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower:
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. 

***

When the radio news voice says that “bad weather” is expected this weekend, and that “today is beautiful, but tomorrow it’s going to rain,” I grumble. There isn’t bad weather, there’s only weather, I insist. All weather is good, every day is beautiful, just dress for the present conditions. A good trench coat, cute rain boots, and a bright-colored umbrella make me giddy. I love to feel prepared, ready to face anything and come out unruffled.

As it turns out, that strength and resilience is what causes my life-crunching headaches. Multiple doctors, a MRI, and a neurologist appointment later, I learned that what I suffer from are “let-down headaches.” Trust me, I could run with that name forever—let down? Let me tell you about let downs. But scientifically, it’s an extension of migraine that is triggered by prolonged periods of stress followed by sudden relaxation. The stress hormones dissipate and leave my brain reeling, screaming in pain. Where is the cortisol! Load me up, A-type personality girl! Find me a thrill!

Sigh.

And get this: migraine sufferers, or “migrainers” as we are cheerily referred to in the lame “How to Live with Migraine” magazine my neurologist gave me, have a distinct personality. They’re over-achievers who love routine and stability, they have a tremendous empathy that makes them an emotional sponge that absorbs all the suffering, angst, or happiness around them—oh, and they tend to be the ones who relocate to help a dying loved one.

Bunky Huron: Migrainer.

When I moved to Texas to help my mother in her final year, my poor head reacted poorly. Every time I arrived at her apartment and sunk into the sofa in front of the Hallmark channel, I could feel the pain creep to my temples. My mother and I discussed potential causes quite often, as I have been a headache sufferer my entire life, and I used to write science reports on them as early as middle school. I even did a science fair project on headaches.

So I was the scientist, and my mother was the nurse. She remained calm and steady as my earliest pre-teen migraines made the left side of my body go numb and deadened my tongue so I couldn’t speak. My memories of her constant care are so clear. She’d get a cool, wet wash cloth for my head and gently hover near me while I writhed on the sofa. I’d try to tell her through tongue-numb speech that I knew it was a symptom of the vascular lightning storm in my brain, and I knew it would subside, but I was secretly scared i was going dumb and would lose my power to speak entirely.

My mother’s eyes showed concern, but not panic. The constant presence of her love was my tether to the real world while my viewpoint grew hazy with eyesight-blinding migraine “aura.” I’m still so amazed that she didn’t panic. She was as much a worrier as I was, but as a mother, she was effortlessly steady. She knew my strength and resilience, she knew I was generally a really healthy kid, and above all, she knew that if she sat there calmly with me, I might believe that there was hope for normal life again.

I look back now and realize that I did the same for her when she was sick in the hospital. I stayed calm, I acted as though everything was normal, and I tried to set a tone of steady routine in our lives. But my headaches persisted, and I really thought they were brought on by the stress of being a caretaker. I’d blame her openly, saying that the grocery list gave me a headache, and coming to her house gave me a headache.

Now, my poor, scientific heart knows that those were let-down headaches, and I was in pain because I’d relaxed in her care. While she cooked me dinner, and brought me snacks and drinks as I lounged on the sofa, I returned to a softness I hadn’t felt since I was a child. There was no one who cared for me on a daily basis, except my mother. And the disappearance of that steadiness, that supportive force of her love after she died, is wracking my brain with pain.

“You’re someone who functions valiantly under stress, and then you collapse when it subsides,” my neurologist intones. The reason I’d had a headache for two months straight was no doubt the release of grief, the exodus of physical pain from my poor, fragile corporeal person.

Mom, you didn’t give me headaches. You gave me relief, and my body gave me headaches. I miss you so much it actually hurts.

I am slowly getting better, thanks to craniosacral massage and a new awareness on how to mitigate stress in my life. Apparently, “migrainers” have to actually fake a little bit of stress after a long period of stress, so they can avoid the sharp withdrawal of hormones. So this morning I actually told myself I had so much to do today, such a busy Saturday, so much work to do!

Feeling the ache creep to back of my skull to accompaniment of the relaxing sounds of rain pouring down on my deck outside, I did some semi-intense yoga to make sure I was stressed. Hey, hey, gentle fall into relaxation. Not sudden. Gentle.

After yoga, in savasana, I let my jaw go slack, and suddenly pictured my mother’s own slack expression after she died. These are the images we keep in our mind forever. I started sobbing and said out loud, “I saw the last light in your eyes. I was the witness.”

I, always alone, alone, was the witness. No wonder I’m stressed. And as I sobbed, I said, “Your love was golden.” And as my mother’s favorite poet, Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.”

Do You Want Sprinkles With That?

27 Sep

skylightGiven the opportunity to speak, yesterday, after many years of ill translation, deaf ears, and plenty of dampening, my heart had two things to say. The first was an inquiry that appeared sweetly beneath heaving chest: “Why don’t you give me things?” And through my head, of all things, ran images of the corner deli near my apartment, and a pint of my favorite ice cream, which I absolute forbid myself to buy on any occasion. Somewhere along the line, after a lifetime of wistful sensitivity around seeing people eating ice cream alone (an affliction I share with my brother, and probably 35 percent of the people to whom I try to explain this sensation), I determined that purchasing and eating ice cream alone is absolutely the most abominable of all possible manifestations of self-pity.

But do you know what it is? It’s self-care. Yadda, yadda moderation, etc. But let me explain. Yesterday, I saw the look of supreme pleasure and engagement on the face of a father as he watched his daughter eat her cute, little after-school snack on a table outside a grocer on Classon Avenue. In the split second of my glance while I passed, I sensed how enamored he was of her, and how much he thrilled in her every joy. She was telling him a story, and mostly oblivious to how he was doting on her, the way kids are (except they aren’t, they really are absorbing this sensation, and its absence would be keenly felt), and he had this placid smile on his face while she divided her attention between her snack and her narrative. He was, and is, so in love with her. And hopefully she will be able to carry the safety and comfort of that feeling with her throughout her life.

In that split second of recognition, I remembered how it felt to sit with my mother and brother when we had something to eat after school or one of the countless extra-curricular activities which she selflessly researched and shuttled us to and from. She would actually, completely, and utterly fawn over us while we ate. And I didn’t remember how that felt until I saw that man doting on his daughter yesterday.

In the last few years of my mother’s life, I had grown to resent her, experiencing her love as that of a greedy and demanding soul who was never sated. But now that she is gone, and now I have put myself through the paces of helplessly feeling deeply for people who are unavailable to me, and more so, now that I am past the age she was when she left my father and took my brother and I somewhere safe, I suddenly see parents everywhere much differently. The way they look at their children is positively, absolutely, gorgeous. When no one is looking, and it’s just another average moment, their eyes are filled with pure love.

So my heart, given the opportunity to speak during my craniosacral massage session (hope for chronic headache cure #2,728), kinda said, “Hey, remember how when you used to ask for things, need things, and there was that nice lady who brought them to you, no questions asked? Can you do a little bit of that for yourself?”

Gotcha, heart. For sure. Let’s grocery shop for the actual human inside me instead of the checklist, and hey, when you want to stay cozy under a blanket and watch a movie, I’m not going to yell at you to do the dishes, practice piano, or work on your resume. How about you lie on the sofa and I’ll take care of you like your mom used to, and I’ll give you some huge amount of sympathy for how awful it must feel to have lost that this summer. No one ever tells you that grief is physical. No one ever tells you.

Anyway, so that request delivered, and my heart wary of how much time I’d give it to speak, it blurted out, “I miss people.” I immediately dismissed it. Yeah, yeah, you miss people. Come on, you’re never alone! You’re never alone. You have a million friends and you life in New York City, where the guy at the deli will banter with you in a fix.

But then my craniosacral massage therapist genius practitioner (seriously, people, I will have to link to her page, because she saves lives) provided some translation. “So your heart wants some intimacy.”

Ohhhhhhh, yeah, that. That that. And my mind flipped through a series of index cards pertaining to this matter:
• You’ve been dating emotionally unavailable men ever since your mom was diagnosed four years ago
• Your soulmate in Salt Lake City reminded you recently that you formed an intimate relationship (however complex it was) with your mother while you were living in Texas for her final year, and now that intimate relationship is gone
• Last week, your craniosacral massage genius pointed out that your heart has been protected throughout this long and painful process, and it will open very gradually if you take care of it and let it know it’s safe (I actually told her that I picture my heart surround by orange safety cones that form a safe perimeter around it)

No wonder my head hurts. All the time.

My heart is more broken than it has ever been, or will ever be. I have lost the person who brought me into this world, and who prized my every movement and thought within it. While I doubted the quality of her affection, and told myself she didn’t understand me at all, it never mattered. It doesn’t matter. She had a picture of me that was so beautiful, and her feelings for me were founded in something I will only ever see in the countenance of other parents.

When I practice heart meditation, I always see a very pure white light, and when I first experienced that years ago, I started weeping, because Soul Mate in SLC once told me that my heart emanates a brilliant white light of goodness, and he reminds me of this fact constantly. Yesterday, with the aid of my craniosacral guide, I finally saw that brilliant white light again, and that’s how this whole conversation with my heart began. She had just said, “Okay, little heart, you have center stage, what do you want to say?” And then when I saw the light, she said, “Oh, not such a little heart. Big heart.”

That’s me. That’s me. I have a huge, huge heart and I constantly crunch it down and give myself headaches when I sense that it’s knocking someone over with the power of its enthusiasm. So, dear heart, I will buy you ice cream, and I will give you intimacy with the people who are capable of sharing that with me now, but maybe the dearest form of intimacy will take a while to find, because ohhhhh my heart needs some healing from the loss of the source of constant affection in my life. But, like CranioGenius said, “If people are afraid of your huge heart, it says something about their own approach to life. The right man will not be afraid of your huge heart.”

Morning Glory

6 Sep

photoI don’t have an air conditioner. On purpose. Leaving the windows open, strategically placed fans circulating air front to back across my long, floor-through brownstone apartment, keeps me connected to the real temperature of my surroundings. I know the weather as well as I know my neighbors’ business, and they know when it will rain and what time I picked up my paper off the stoop this morning. When I step outside, we wave to each other, caught up on everyone’s everything, and the heat and humidity are not a shock to my system.

I am among that most privileged class of New Yorker. I know my neighbors and I have access to outdoor space with a garden. I write to you, dear reader,  while perched on my wooden deck. Below, in my neighbors’ beautiful green expanse of flowers and trees, three cats twitch their ears and flick their tails at every passing insect and shimmer of sunlight. Next door, my neighbors are starting early with preparations for today’s barbecue. The fence between us and the rails of my deck are lined with winding morning glory vines that tangle and weave our spaces together.

The benefits of my connection to the outside world don’t only arise from this bucolic setting. On the other end of my apartment is a large picture window with a view of the bustling street and populated stoops of Crown Heights. It’s actually never quiet out there, and this is something I much appreciate. When very late one recent night there seemed to be a strange tension in the crowd of teenagers that makes the sidewalk their living room, I felt safe because my neighbors across the street were on the stoop, watching over the block. And all day long, I see each passing person, across demographics young and old, raise a hand in greeting to Charlie. “Chan, Charlie Chan is what they’ve  called me my whole life,” he says from his stoop. His chair is seldom empty.

My building is connected by ownership to three others, one adjoining and two across the street. No, the properties are not owned by some faceless condo developer. They’re owned by three brothers, natives of Brooklyn who make their own wine and live on the same block as their mother in Sunset Park. They bought these properties thirty years ago, when they were just finishing high school. They owned them through riots and now into the new wave of gentrification. We’re all hoping that this is the first neighborhood where communities merge rather than displace one another, and I have to say, so far it appears to be working.

The hipsterization of every part of life has brought good food to new restaurants that are populated by people from each sector of the neighborhood. The cool, new Berg’n beer joint and food emporium down the street from me is not full of apathetic indie rockers, but rather an array of construction workers and the people who have lived through each chapter of this neighborhood.

This fabric sustains us all. Even on a day when I choose to stay close to home, alone, and read my books, I speak with many whenever I run out to do an errand or weed my herb garden. I am never alone, and every breath I take is a privilege. One I am very well aware that my mother no longer enjoys. And so I collect each sensation and connect with every conversation in dedication to this loving and gentle woman, who was confined to the indoors most of her life, and loved me endlessly even while she seemed to abhor her place in the world. Her neighbors were her imagined enemies, and the television was sometimes her only window. But even she, when she had the opportunity, loved to sit on her deck or grill up some dinner with my brother.

I know full well that I am living an extension of the life she built for herself and for me. I am taking each happy element and adding to it a carefully tended sense of wellbeing that I share with every wave, smile, and wink with the people I meet each day. In meditation, it’s called compassion. In life, it might be called purpose.

Avoid Stress

30 Aug

retreatThis is my weekend. But I only managed to claim it for myself after verifying that the holiday would take all those closest to me far away, so I won’t have to worry about knitting them into my minute-to-minute. You people who make my life complete, who infuse my existence with so much richness, I can let you enjoy your beaches and backyards without fretting that I am not doing enough for you.

I am the quintessential “Helper” type, according to the Enneagram Personality Profile system. A fancier version of the Meyers-Briggs personality dictates we all know and love, those Enneagram Institute people really nailed it. A friend of mine who was in couples therapy years ago recommended I do a self-evaluation with Enneagram, and sure enough, it was dead-on. I am a helper, which means at best, I feel it is a privilege to be in the lives of others. But add a bit of stress and duress to my life, and I slump toward “Overly intimate and intrusive: they need to be needed, so they hover, meddle, and control in the name of love. Want others to depend on them: give, but expect a return: send double messages. Enveloping and possessive: the codependent, self-sacrificial person who cannot do enough for others—wearing themselves out for everyone, creating needs for themselves to fulfill.” 

Stress, the Enneagrammers say, is the enemy of our fullest self. And I’m sure they mean all sorts of stress, physical and mental, trauma and trifle. But let me tell you a secret. Helpers never admit they’re under stress. They just break and crumble until they’ve crippled themselves completely and drop some napalm on their romantic situation to clear a little space for themselves. I say this with authority because I demonstrate it quite readily.

According to some other kinda psychological list that we all learned in high school, “serious illness of a loved one” is the top stressor in life, followed by serious concern about a loved one, death of a loved one, and then on down to relocation and feelings of insecurity at work. Given the amount of love and loss in my life these past years, I should probably have quit my job and moved to Costa Rica by now. Check back later for a link to my “selling everything” craigslist ad. 

I write these words from inside the worst, most severe prolonged tension headache I have ever known. I thought I set the record two years ago when my mother was in the hospital, or last year when I made plans for leaving her in Texas so I could return to New York. But no, no, her actual departure from this earth and my subsequent attempt to “grieve correctly” while maintaining an insanely demanding job has done me in. If my mother was here with us now, I know she would put me on the sofa, turn on the TV, and cook me dinner. She would say sympathetic things and I would rumple under the suffocation of her care, and I would snap back at her, refusing to elaborate. 

I stopped telling my mother about what hurt me so long ago. And now I just want to call her every day that I continue to endure this headache and receive her unending sympathy. As it is, my twisted personality is not receiving good returns on the investments I make in others, and I feel adrift. Alone on an ice floe. 

Obviously I need some readjustment. There are no returns on love. You really are supposed to give selflessly while somehow also maintaining your own self-care so you don’t ask anything in return. I truly, deeply, absolutely, desperately crave that ability. But as it stands, I am left here, foundering, extending my desperate and clingy tentacles and wrapping them around my hapless victims, seeking love and then snapping when it’s offered to me. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” as T.S. Eliot says. 

So, good morning, my weekend. Mine and mine and so much time for writing and piano practice and baking and yoga and meditation. So why the tension headache and rickety bones and abject misery? I gave myself my own answer as I put organic toothpaste onto my toothbrush this morning. My mind pushed the truth forward in answer to my silent inquiry about whether or not I could really, possibly take a beach towel out of my perfectly organized linen closet (maximized for tiny NYC living) and use it to make a lovely place for me to lounge on my deck today. 

As I pondered the effects of this potentially disruptive move in my precisely curated existence, my mind gently said: 

“You make your life so perfect and then you don’t live in it.”

Do I need to hear anything else? 

 

Live Without Her

3 Aug

loveI used to write about heartbreak before I knew what it was. Now I have the prize of champion heart-wrench.

My mother left this earth on June 3, 2014, and until the very last moment, I saw in her blue eyes the most absolute, pure love. I’d questioned the authenticity of that love throughout her long illness, my simple, confused corporeal form firing flight signals in response to pain. My neurons found error in the connection between immense suffering from grief and the person who loved me most in the world.

In the end, love, that biological and spiritual combination of attachment, was unquestionably my mother’s life purpose. She always said she’d only ever really wanted to have children, and my brother and I were her greatest achievement, but I cast doubt from behind the guise of my own ambitions. No one lives for children, I scoffed. But I will tell you now with absolute certainty that mothers and fathers operate on a different frequency of need and provision. They live for you. They lived for you. And now I live in honor of her love.

Unable to speak on the last day, she held me in a gasping gaze of perfect human and soul dependence on surviving for me. I expressed my profound gratitude for every moment she gave me. “All the best parts of me came from you. I’ll use those parts every day and think of you, you’re a permanent part of me. I love you so much and I feel how much you love me. We are going to miss you. But you can rest now if you need to, we’re ready to be strong and know you loved us.”

We had to let each other go. I left the room, and so did she.

No one tells you about the immediate disconnect you feel when a parent leaves the earth. You actually become untethered, and are floating, adrift in a life structure built before your loss. The sensation is a mix of fragility and clarity. Untended by the one, single soul who watched out for you since the moment you came into existence, you suddenly realize with perfect sensitivity the ways in which to nurture yourself through every moment. A transfer of care occurs, and you feel that you owe it to the best human you ever knew to make the most of the life you were given.

Summer really did break and awake me this year. I’ve been lost, I’ve been hopeless, I have found love, I finally got over the animal need to boost serotonin through starch consumption (well, kind of)… and now, just this morning, I feel like I emerged from a cocoon. Grief still holds me, and I will always, always cherish the moments of wrenching sadness that clutch my heart and remind me of my mom’s placid and perfect dedication. But maybe I can take some new steps now. I will not let her disappear.

Something I want to tell you, that I don’t think we say enough when we talk about the death of a parent, is that when they cease to exist physically, you suddenly feel a new sense of very strong support from within yourself. A true yogi in every sense, I feel as though my mother is lifting my heart, boosting it up in my chest. She did it from the first second in which I came to be, and now with all the interference of this messy human life gone, I can feel a new, steadfast strength that she instills in me. I will not let her down. I will love and give endlessly as she did, and I will work to find the support and fulfillment that she wanted for me.

I love you, Mom. Thank you.

Cone of Silence

20 Jun

For as long as I’ve been capable of conscious thought, I’ve had a thing about eating ice cream alone. I physically can’t do it. I also can’t watch others do it without sudden tears clouding my vision. Ice cream is a food of happiness, and when it is consumed alone, especially by the lonely or angry, it becomes a sad symbol of how often we miss the mark in life and have to sublimate our pain in a sugary confection.

Last week, I ate ice cream alone three nights in a row. I was staying in my mother’s empty apartment while she slept uneasily under heavy sedation in the ICU at a nearby hospital. My brother bought the ice cream and some chocolate syrup days before, and then left me alone with it when he went back to New York.

So there I was, watching the same TV shows and movies my mom would watch in some sort of vigil to keep her spirit alive through possibly the most disturbingly massive surgery anyone should have to endure, and eating ice cream alone. I got to the point where I was looking forward to it every evening. After all the hospital visits were done, after all the nurses and doctors and surgeons and front desk people and parking lot attendants and concerned neighbors had been addressed, my twenty minutes of quiet time before collapsing into bed were spent with a quiet bowl of sweet solace.

These nights redefined loneliness for me. Your mother is incapacitated, and when she does speak, it’s in woozy drug-induced nightmares of organ-stealing doctors. All you want to do is make inane comments about the garbage television you’re watching in her honor. All you want to do is indulge in three romantic comedies in a row together. But no, it’s just you on the seafoam green mircosuede sofa she chose to help decorate her new apartment in “spa style”, slurping excessive chocolate syrup from a spoon.

It hurts. Like a specialized hurt. But the ice cream is a vigil, too. It’s a tribute to nights spent with mom and my brother, all of us enjoying a bowl of confection before bedtime. We’d take turns going to the kitchen to serve it up each night. It was our foundation.

That’s why when I see people cling to ice cream in an act of desperation, seeking that childhood comfort, my heart breaks into ten million pieces. A tattooed guy in a giant pickup truck drives past me in Texas plains heat, licking a soft-serve cone. An old guy on the street clutches a dripping stack of creamy memories. A family sick of screaming at each other declares a cease fire with sprinkles.

It’s enough to bring you to your knees.

When my mom finally awoke, and when they finally yanked the ventilator tube from her throat after six days, you know what she asked for, again and again and again? Ice cream. I stood at her bedside and she delivered her request in the imperative. The nurses said no one in the ICU ever eats real food, so they were unprepared for her request. My mother looked to me. “I want some ice cream.”

And I did the strangest thing. I looked the clock, and calculated how much time was left in our current 30-minute visiting hour session. Not enough time now, mom. And I don’t know where I’d even get it. There are no grocery stores in this neighborhood. I’ll try to bring it for the next visiting time in two hours.

Two hours I made her wait. I made her wait. At her behest, I opted for the simplest option on my way back to the ICU. Go to the McDonald’s on the ground floor of the main hospital building across the street. Order a chocolate sundae. Please bring your mother just a tiny cup of comfort.

I fed my mom the ice cream from a plastic container her sedated hands couldn’t hold. She was truly, truly happy. It was the first real food she’d had in a week. And I’ll tell you something. The next time my mom asks for ice cream I will run, I will fly downstairs and get it. I will bring it up to her immediately. Ice cream is a request as serious as a blood transfusion. It is not frivolity. It is not desperation. It is a melting answer when there are absolutely no solid truths in the world.

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