Sunday, October 25, 2020

CELEBRATING POINTS OF LIGHT

 When I listened to Jennifer Louden's Writer's Oasis on Friday, she included a meditation that was based on something a therapist had shared with a member of the Oasis. She was told to imagine all the ingredients of the past week, the good, the bad, the ugly, being tossed into a giant colander. Then all the bad and the ugly are washed away, leaving only the good, the kindness, the thoughtfulness and the love left in the colander of your life, and each fragment of good shines with its own colorful light so that all your goodness sparkles and dazzles in the bowl of the colander.

I thought of this today, as I was helping to give a retreat called "Coping with Life Alone," sponsored by Beginning Experience of San Diego.  Beginning Experience is an international movement that primarily offers weekend retreats for widowed, divorced and separated to help them along the path of healing after their loss. We haven't been able to have our weekend retreats since Covid shut down so many things, but a couple of weeks ago we were finally given permission to have a one day retreat at a church hall, with masks and social distancing and Covid-19 regulations in place.  We filled every place on the weekend and had a waiting list, and most people who signed up said it was something that they needed.

The last presentation of the day was "Where do we go from here?"  One of the questions we reflected on was sharing our feelings with others. It was an opportunity to ponder the sea-change I have experienced since my beloved husband's death nearly eight years ago. "In many ways, I've been risking and disclosing my feelings since 1981, when we made our Marriage Encounter Weekend and then became a presenting Team Couple. But it's very different risking my feelings of grief and loss within the context of Beginning Experience. These feelings of plunging to ground zero as I faced the worst thing that could ever have happened to me, the one thing I begged God never to allow to happen but he did anyway, as the ground I stood on was cut away from me, and the work we did together which was rewarding and powerful disappeared the moment he died, leaving me on an ice floe drifting aimlessly in the Antarctic, frozen and numb and unbelieving, stunned at how, in a clap of thunder and a blaze of lightning, the whole landscape of my life was upended as if by a hurricane or a wildfire or an earthquake.

Sharing these feelings, with the slow toxic drip of pain, is far more difficult and challenging and harrowing. At the end of a Marriage Encounter Weekend, we'd see lives transformed, love renewed and strengthened, and bursting with the brilliance of the Holy Spirit. In what we do in Beginning Experience, it's a much slower process, where we learn to creep and crawl, to pull ourselves up little by little with bruised and bloodied fingers, and to hope little slivers of light creep in through the cracks in our hearts. I feel hopeful about doing this, but it is a pale hope, like starshine rather than the sunlight of a summer's day.  It's like the wavering steps of a child just learning to walk rather than the dancing leaps of children playing in the grass. Every step is hard-won and there are plenty of falls along the way. And each time I am sharing with others who are also facing their own zero hours of despair and desperation and horror. So we move ahead in the dark, comforted by the presence of others on similar journeys, none of them the same, but striking little flames of light as we find compass points together we can steer by.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

BALANCE OF POWER

When I went to Mass Saturday night, our priest talked about a balance of power between what we do with the gifts we've been given and the glory we are called to give to God for those gifts.  In many ways, the development of my chapbook, Portal of Light, has been like walking that tightrope.  When I began it, I called it "The Gate of Gratitude," because I realized that the first poem I'd written since my husband had died that wasn't overshadowed by grief was about "Serendipitous Expeditions" with my son to the Wild Animal Park in San Diego from the time he was quite small until he towered over me at 6'5" and the two of us celebrated my birthday there.  The poem then became "Portal" and later "Portal of Light." But the original gate became an arch which then opened into the idea of a ziggurat. That required an extensive amount of research into ziggurats and hanging gardens and pretty soon I was erecting my poetic ziggurat and planting it with trees and flowers until I had fallen in love with the vast construction watered by elaborate Archimedes screws and other inventions presumably of Sennacherib, who had apparently created a ziggurat for his favorite wife, although further research revealed that he was a brutal and terrifying leader. While I was creating this elaborate structure, I was also working on earlier sections about my children and what gradually became very clear was how many times one of them escaped serious injury or death. This led to the flowering of thankfulness even in the valley of the shadow of my beloved husband's death, for I had been left with a cloud of witnesses to his passage on earth and the goodness he exemplified both in our family and with everyone he knew. 

Then I discovered that my daughter Mary had the gift of literary criticism and was delighted to put it to use as I worked on the chapbook, and it grew from the first 7 pages to the current 47.  And that is despite the fact that I finally saw the point that Mary was making about the ziggurat not really belonging, even though it was the under-structure that I used to build the whole chapbook.  It may be a separate poem at some point, but when I finally took it out, I realized that the whole poem had taken on a life of its own and no longer needed the scaffolding that held it together in the beginning. It's analogous to my life. After Wes died, I tried to construct my world on the memories of all that we had done together, but I have gradually learned that now, in Chapter 2, I have to frame a new life and build a new home. It has the same foundation but I've slowly changed the colors, the functions of the rooms, the yard and garden, and time has been slowly creating a different landscape all around.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

THE REBEL UNBOUND

Recently, I was describing to someone what I most want as a rebel, and I gave them an example from the days when I rode horseback. For me, it is that experience of sailing over a jump--or a fence--into freedom.  When I was describing this to my daughter Elizabeth who used to ride with me, I told her that I had a similar feeling of freedom when I was 9. I had had serious surgery and was in the hospital for 3 and 1/2 weeks.  My family lived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and St. Francis Hospital was in Tulsa, about 50 miles away.  I think my mother stayed with me the first day when I was coming out of the anesthesia, but after that, she went home, and she would come to visit on Saturdays.  After the first week, I think my parents must have felt sorry for me, because they paid for me to have a TV in my room, so I could watch Kennedy's inauguration.  From then on, I watched the game shows in the morning but turned off the TV when the soap operas started in the afternoon. There was a bookmobile in the hospital, and I loved its arrival in my room when I could choose books and then read for hours in the afternoons. There were lots of nuns working in the hospital, and they were all kind and motherly, as were the nurses.  Some thoughtful person had sent me a plant arrangement that came with three porcelain kittens.  I played with those kittens every day; it was the kindest present anyone could have sent me.

A couple of the nuns from my school, including my fourth-grade teacher, visited me in the hospital, and when Sr. Collette told me that I didn't have to make up all the schoolwork I'd missed that was a true gift, because it meant that the rest of the time in the hospital I could read and watch TV and play with my kittens with no concern that I should be working on math or English instead. In addition, I had no chores, which was a lovely perk. I don't ever remember being lonely. I accepted the three shots I had every day with good grace, but I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bed, and the meals were almost always delicious. I had a sunny room and plenty of company in the nurses and staff people in the hospital. One of the nurses talked to me so much about her favorite book as a girl, Anne of Green Gables, that before I left the hospital she gave me my own copy. My overall recollection of that time was of untrammeled freedom; I could decide to do exactly what I wanted within the bounds of the hospital, and I'd never felt so lighthearted as I felt during that stay. It probably speaks volumes for how much dominance I experienced when I was at home, that in the hospital this little rebel stretched her wings and found it intoxicating. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

TRYING TO OUTWIT THE REBEL

 In an earlier post I shared some of the challenges I have been facing as I try to get organized and overcome my lifelong habit of procrastination.  One of my little victories was deciding to use 5 Post-it Notes at a time to write down tasks I need to do for my book so that I can pick one rather than feel as if it were something being forced on me.  The first attempt worked fairly well, along with the suggestion that I set a timer for 5 minutes to work on one task.  I did that one afternoon and finished the first one. The next day, I set the timer and after the first five minutes were up, I kept going and sailed through three more. I showed my "About the Author" essay to my business partner, and she immediately tore it to shreds.  At first I resisted listening to her, but then I realized that she had some points (she had run a publishing company for many years in Austria) and that I would have to rewrite it.  So now, I have that project again, and the last Post-it Note and have done nothing about either in over a week.  The rebel has dug in her heels.

Things that work for others don't work for me. Many of my friends swear by calendar blocking.  I've tried that, but as soon as I block it in, it seems to set up an internal alarm that means I will never get to it at that time on that day.  The one thing that I have stuck to for over 40 years is Mondays are poetry days.  When I came home after a week in the hospital when I had my first child, I decided that on Mondays I would write poetry. I had had a full-time job outside the home--and in fact, dressed for work the day I wound up going to the hospital--and now I was staying at home in our little apartment in Hackensack, N.J. I'd taken a poetry workshop from poet Colette Inez just before I'd gotten married and decided that poetry would suit the lifestyle of a new mother better than pursuing my dream of writing the Great American Novel. My first daughter was a good sleeper and I could count on a long nap while I wrote, revised, and mailed out my poems to journals and contests.  At the time, I was still using an electric typewriter and I amused myself with different colored ribbons so that each submission was in a different color. It was too precious for words, and I wasted a great deal of time changing typewriter ribbons when I could have been writing.  Despite this foible, one of my poems won 9th prize in a Canadian journal and I became a professional poet.

After my children were grown I decided I could write any day or every day and the result of this perception was that I often didn't write at all because there was always tomorrow.  Over the years the children were growing up, I did finish a middle-grade novel, and after my husband died, I wrote a book on marriage (the one with the accompanying Post-it Notes assignments). I submitted a full-length poetry collection to several contests and am waiting to hear from the current contest. I am (I think) almost finished with the chapbook of poetry, once my daughter Mary gives me her latest critique. The ziggurat that was her greatest stumbling block has been completely dismantled. However, when I gave her the version without the ziggurat, she took it home and later texted me, "Just finished reading 'Portal of Light.' Pgs. 36-37 are really excellent. The way you return to the cosmic imagery of the first poem to express the emotions and upheaval of that time is brilliant. Unfortunately for you, this means I have no guilt about pushing you on it because what you wrote is so, so good."  She has really mastered what we called in Marriage Encounter "the negative sandwich."  When the husband or wife wanted to share a negative feeling he or she would sometimes squeeze it between an opening compliment and a positive close.  However, the important thing was that by sharing our feelings we learned to understand each other more intimately. Similarly, all of Mary's critiques and comments have been focused on making the chapbook the best it can be.  

I have returned to my Poetry Mondays, without calendar blocking them because they were so intrinsic to my life that all I needed to do was raise the bar and click them back into place. Wednesdays have gradually become my days when I often call my daughter Teresa and Skype with Catherine. At 4, I have my Energetic Embodiment session, which I have never managed to describe adequately but which has helped me understand myself and others better and access more energy than I knew I had. In the evening, my husband and I would go to church for an hour to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  We did that for over 30 years and I continued after he died.  When Covid 19 shut down the churches, I just continued my hour of prayer at home. So I suppose I could say that Wednesdays are my days of interpersonal communication!  For nearly 8 years, Thursdays have been my days to work on my greeting cards with my business partner. On Fridays, I journal in the mornings and have my horn lesson, which can take 2 or 3 hours, in the afternoon.  That leaves Tuesdays if I want to work on my other writing during the work week. So I suppose that I need to approach Tuesdays with more of a sense of purpose--or perhaps as a rebel, I need to slide sideways into the day without thinking of it as an assignment, but maybe going back to the 5-minute timer and promising myself that I will only do 5 minutes and then give myself a reward for that.  The rebel is complaining that it's a dreary prospect, so perhaps I really have to find a good way to celebrate other than saying, "Great, you did your 5 minutes."  I am realizing even as I write this that I am going to have to do some serious thinking about celebrating and rewards!