Falling Into Grace

IMG_1045 (1)Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is a day in which the very ordinary—a meal, can be turned into the extraordinary—a meal. It is a time to transform surviving into thriving. A time for gratitude.

But, today is much like a Thanksgiving more than a decade ago when I could not see my way clear to feel that. I could not muster up gratitude no matter how hard I tried.

So, I did a meditation where I invited gratitude in. She took me through a dark tunnel that formed after the lava from a volcanic eruption hardened into black rock. It was not comfortable making my way through through the tunnel. It was the blackest darkness I had ever experienced. But there was an end to it. It led me into a cave covered in paintings that told the stories of those who had lived eons earlier.

I placed my hand on a painting of a horse and heard a chorus of voices say, “This is what it means to be human.”

That’s how I found gratitude that year.

All over Facebook I see messages that encourage us to be thankful, assure us, or maybe demand from us, that there is always something to be thankful for. I’m not big on that. Sometimes, there is just too much in the way. And I think we have a right to feel the grief we feel and the despair that accompanies it. It is the black-dark tunnel we must walk through to find our connection to being human again.

This past year has been one of grief and despair. Some of it from an accumulation of losses that fell one after the other over two decades with no time in between to give grief its due. And then there was the election and the pall of meanness and cynicism that has descended on our country.

More than once, I had to pull myself out of my own La Brea tar pit.

So this Thanksgiving is a subdued one for me. Tom and I used to host dinners for as many as 12 people. I miss that. But, Tom and I have found a way to honor the holiday with just the 2 of us. We are grateful for each other.

I think the most difficult thing about grief is it feels like we have fallen out of grace. I don’t think we actually do, but it is certainly a loneliness of the soul that is part of being human. It’s what makes us unique and connects us to eons of being human.

I like this definition of grace: the unearned gift. It is the life spirit that allows us to thrive regardless of our surroundings.

I think my time for grieving is drawing to a close. It’s time for me to venture out into the world where grief becomes a distant memory rather than a constant companion. What I learned from my journey through this latest tunnel is my own tenderness. My natural inclination has been to be a warrior—to fight for the higher purpose. So I’m not sure what it means for me to be tender, disarmed and without armor.

But, I’m certain that the tenderness of being a warrior is as powerful as the warrior wading into battle. Both require banishing fear from my workshop.

Maybe the only thing in the way of grace is fear.

Joy and sorrow are flip sides of the same coin. We really can’t have one without the other. That’s what it means to be human. Why we must treat each other with kindness. Banish fear of each other so we can let grace through.

Thanks for the Mammaries

“Thanks for the mammaries.”

That was on the inside of a card I gave to my mother for Mother’s Day. On the outside was a drawing of a blissful mother nursing her baby.

My mother hadn’t breast fed me. I was born in 1949 when it was out of fashion, and she had taken some kind of drug that had dried up the breast milk. She had taken it for an infection, she said.

I am not upset that my mother didn’t breast feed me. It just sort of fit with who she was. Not cold and indifferent – just not sentimental about being a mother. Thus, she enjoyed the card I gave her.

I liked that about my mother.

Mother’s Day wasn’t terribly important to her, so it was always pretty low key. Since I did not have children, it wasn’t particularly on my radar.

And then I became a stepmother.

I think the word “blended” family is misleading. It is often more like a Cuisinart family, in which a wide variety of volatile emotions get churned by the sharp blade of confusion about who loves who, who can love who, and whose love counts. That the human heart is both fragile and muscular is evident in the delicate navigation through the whitewaters of relationships in a stepfamily. Children are hardwired to want their parents’ love. A stepparent has to earn it.

The hidden rocks and whirlpools in my journey through this experience comprised my not having children of my own – yet wanting them – and the very challenging dysfunction of my stepdaughters’ mother. I sometimes referred to her as my step wife.

I helped my stepdaughters make presents for their mother my first Mother’s Day as a stepmother. They left and a hole the size of the Grand Canyon opened up in my heart as I realized I would not be acknowledged for the love I was investing in this relationship.

So much for Mother’s Day not being particularly important. It was a bit of a humbling experience.

Because of their mother’s dysfunction, I became something of a covert mother for them, but always taking the back seat when it came to being recognized as the mother. It was a rollercoaster of pain, followed by acceptance, followed by pain when it happened again.

I never blamed by stepdaughters. It was just the way it was. Their need for their mother’s love was primal, and so loyalty went to her.

I remember the first Mother’s Day I received a card from one of my stepdaughters. She was in college. I don’t know how to describe what I felt. The only word that comes to mind is grace.

That I did not have children has always been a bit baffling to me. I always wanted them, thought I would have them. We tend to get along well, children and me.

There are two “reasons” that make “sense” to me.

First, there was a history of abuse in my family. I wanted to make sure I resolved that so I didn’t pass it on. My one conception was the result of an abusive relationship. After careful feeling, I decided to terminate the pregnancy – I just didn’t feel that I had it in me to overcome the abusive shadow that hung over it. I have no regrets about that decision.

Second, I wanted to avoid the wrath of the women in my family. They were chained to the belief that women had to make a choice between being a person, or being a wife and mother. If I chose both, it would have ripped open their wound caused by their perceived lack of choice. They were somewhat justified in believing they had no choice – it was the time they lived in. Their message of wrath was unspoken, but deafening in its delivery nevertheless.

Over the past year or so, my oldest stepdaughter and I have become particularly close. She was eighteen by the time I came into the picture, so I was never her covert mother. She was eight years older than my middle stepdaughter and had her own experience being her sisters’ covert mother. Our journey to connection was not an easy one. And yet we arrived.

She has seven-year old triplet sons who she has no problem with my referring to as my grandsons. They call me GrandKaren. I suggested that early on as there were two grandmothers in the picture, and it seems appropriate given that she and her sisters call me Karen.

Over the last couple of months, I stayed with them when she had to travel, then stepped in for daily duty when a bout of the flu put her down for the count for several days. My theory got proved: the day-to-day care of children opens your heart like nothing else can. What I didn’t know was that it opened theirs to me as well.

Because of the peculiar legacy of women as the “sacrificers” that the family I grew up in held, they did not seem to understand that my actions were out of love – they thought it was simply me performing my duty. If one cannot see the heart behind actions, one cannot cherish the heart that delivers them. I have written about this before in the Writing Shed. It ripped my heart out, but I finally had to let that family go. It was a source of constant pain.

This Mother’s Day, I picked up my grandsons early. They greeted me with cards (including one from my stepdaughter) and a dozen pink roses. We shopped for flowers and ingredients for the breakfast they wanted to make for their mother, and then collectively made the breakfast, set the table, and presented her the flowers they had picked out earlier that morning.

That afternoon, they all came to my house for a Mother’s Day bar-b-que.  With great enthusiasm they took part in every step of the meal preparation, including setting and adding a leaf to the table, and helping Tom start the bar-b-que and me make home-made tortilla chips.

As I scooped the last batch of chips out of the cast iron skillet I understood. This was what I had always longed for – a family that understood my heart.

I started the Writing Shed three years ago on the day before Mother’s Day. I started it so I could change my story. That story that I started from, the one that I had learned to live, was about not trusting the light that was in my heart.

My story has changed.

Numbering our Days

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

The bearded man speaking on the cell phone at the airport looked familiar to me. I was returning from Washington where I had attended my 100-year old Uncle’s memorial service.

“Polly will be there,” I heard him say as our paths converged, and then knew that it had to be Steve. I’d gone to high school with Polly and Steve, though I’d only seen them once, eight years earlier, in the more than forty years since we graduated. They had come to the memorial service for our high school English teacher I had organized. I knew he lived in Washington, she in Oregon.

He hung up the phone and I tapped him lightly on the arm. As we made our way through the airport I learned that his father had been injured in a tractor accident. It was serious. His father, who had been a physician, had become a vintner late in life.

We parted ways as he left to find his ride.

Livermore was a smallish town back when we were in high school. And ours was the new high school. It started with just freshman and sophomores. Steve, Polly and I were among the first students. But even though it was a small high school, we gathered in groups, pretty much hanging out with whoever was our designated group. I liked them both and knew them enough to wonder about them over the years, but not well enough to have a way to keep in touch.

Their father died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. The memorial was last Saturday.

This has become a familiar experience for me, acknowledging the loss of my contemporaries’ parents, a life passage. It brings with it a mixture of past and present. The buried memories of who I thought I was and who I thought they were back then meeting the reality of who we had become and the life paths that brought us to where we were today.

The grey rainy skies that had been the previous week gave way to one of those weird late Fall California days on Saturday: bright-blue skies, the sun casting its warmth over leaves still clinging to the trees and the vines in the vineyard.

As I listened to the generations read their tributes to Father and Grandfather, the yellow leaves of the tree by the porch drifted down. Sometimes it was a lone leaf weaving its way through the air, other times a flock of them descended to become a part of the autumnal tapestry gracing the ground.

Be a renaissance person, the grandchildren remembered their grandfather telling them. Both generations drew from Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas in their eulogies, though they had written them independently of each other.

As the day drew to a close, the sun set behind the vineyard, turning the surrounding trees into silhouettes against the darkened sky, its warmth turning to that bright sunset red you see at the edge of the world the moment before it disappears.

But this time, it lingered. Or so it seemed. I don’t remember a sunset lasting as long as this one did, a waning ember that glowed in the dark.

It’s not so much that time stopped as it slowed down so we could acknowledge its passing, as if to let us know that though our days are numbered, they are enough — if we live them deeply and follow the beat of our own hearts.

“My head keeps hitting the ceiling,” Polly said as we talked about what it’s like to lose a parent. It’s true. There is nothing between you and the ceiling as the generations above you die.

Be a renaissance person.

That command came from many sources in the years Polly and Steve and I were in high school. Our teachers encouraged it. The high spirits and optimism of the sixties encouraged it.

I think it is a command we need to bring to the forefront of our culture. I think it is the way we can find our way again in a world that has been turned upside down by fear, greed, and solipsism.

We don’t quote stock prices at significant life passages. We quote the likes of Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas because they express what it is to be human — enduring truths that don’t vanish in the burst of a bubble.

Wisdom Matters

I did not know Elizabeth Edwards. And yet . . .

I have not written a blog for over two months. I wanted to write something before the last election, but it was as if the cat got my tongue. I wanted to write that To Kill a Mockingbird was a fitting metaphor for the country right now; that Sarah Palin and her followers are like the Ewells. Sarah Palin, like Bob Ewell, claiming victimhood and using love of family as a weapon, revels in the power to destroy lives. Her followers seem like Mayella Ewell, who is at the mercy of her rapist and physical abuser—her father, Bob Ewell. Even greater than the rage she has for her father, is that she feels for the town people who turn a blind eye to her plight.

The only power the Ewells seem to have is derived from the conceit that being white entitles them to more than if they were black, regardless of character.

I was not able to articulate that in October. Then the election happened, and the cat seemed to disappear with my tongue.

People, I think, are feeling powerless over their lives right now. As the gap between the haves more and more and haves less and less grows greater, survival fears creep in, which provides fertile ground for tyrants—those whose pathological need for power has no boundaries or decency.

And then, there was Elizabeth Edwards. Pundits and commentators reported that she had lost her battle with cancer. When reminded that she did not look at her impending death as a battle lost, they lost their veneer of objectivity. They seemed to let in the story they were really telling: a life had ended, and though they did not yet understand why or what, she had taught them something about living.

I’ve been sorting through why I can claim the right to pause at her passing, how though I never met her, I feel affected by her life.

She was the same age as I, so perhaps that is a part of why it hits close to the bone. I admire that she took a route that was new to women when we were younger; going to law school. She embraced her entitlement to her aspirations. It took me another twenty before I even recognized I was entitled to them.

When her son was taken from her, she didn’t lose herself in work. Instead she lost herself in grief. I think that’s healthy. I think that’s why she found her way out of it. It also says to me that though she had stepped into a world that was defined by a cultural stereotype of being male, she did not become enslaved by it. She did not man up, she womaned up.

Losing the 2004 election had to be disappointing. On the same day, she learned she had breast cancer. I think the fear of being diagnosed with breast cancer lurks in the dark corner of women’s lives. Dire news about cancer returning coincided with revelations about her husband’s infidelity. The betrayal became public humiliation as it played itself out in 24-hour news cycles. What was most difficult, she said in an interview, was that all through their thirty years of marriage she had been able to turn to her husband during bad times. That’s what she had lost with his betrayal.

If anyone might feel powerless, and bitterness at being powerless, one could understand her feeling that way.

Whatever route it took her to get there, she chose grace over bitterness and powerlessness.

Women like Sarah Palin and Sharon Angle declared that their opponents needed to man up. They are enslaved to cultural stereotypes of being male, a stereotype that might provide the illusion of power over others, but ultimately carries no genuine power with it. They apparently never met Atticus Finch.

Elizabeth Edwards showed us courage and grace in the face of humiliation, disappointment, and death. We all have the power of courage and grace, regardless of what life throws our way.

She showed us how to number our days so we can apply our hearts unto wisdom.

We need leaders who know how to number their days.

We need them to woman up.

When the Dance Becomes Graceful

When we were sixteen, Mary Ann and I went out on a date with our fathers.

I don’t remember what the occasion was, or what inspired the date. We lived on the same block, a short street that curved into another, but our fathers weren’t fast friends.

It was a midweek evening. They dressed up in suits, not their work attire (my dad was an electrician, hers supervised maintenance crews for our town), and took us to the Rock House, the fancy dining place in our small Bay Area suburb.

I had recently gotten my driver’s license, so while our fathers lingered over after dinner drinks, Mary Ann and I took off in my family’s 1960 turquoise Ford station wagon.

Radio tuned to KYA, we tasted a nascent luxurious moment of freedom as we crossed Chestnut Street and bounced over the railroad tracks. The moment screeched to a halt with a loud, ominous crashing sound.

We hadn’t been hit. There was no other car in sight so there had been no accident. I maneuvered the car to the curb and looked in the rear view mirror. There, just past the railroad tracks, was a muffler.

I think Mary Ann and I had a brief discussion about whether or not that was my muffler. I know we didn’t get out and pick up the muffler. I’m sure that the sound of the car as we drove home verified that it was the muffler of my family car lying on P Street.

I’m sure I told my dad. I don’t remember his reaction, though I doubt he was angry with me. I’m sure the car sounded a bit like an airplane as we drove home.

But it was the muffler-falling-off-the-car incident that came to mind on Monday when Mary Ann called to tell me her father, Mike, had died two hours earlier. It was not unexpected, he had been in a nursing home for eight years, he was in his late eighties, and hospice had been called in a few weeks before. But, as Mary Ann said, whatever expected means, that’s not how it feels when Death arrives.

There is a special place in your heart that gets touched when your friend’s parent dies – especially if you knew the person when you were a kid and he or she was the parent with all the collateral authority.

The last time I saw him was when I visited Mary Ann in the middle of September. She had received a phone call early that morning from the nursing home, letting her know that he had fallen, but seemed to be uninjured. We stopped by to check in on him.

He was in a four-person room. One bed was empty, the occupants of the other two were sleeping. Mike’s bed was hidden behind the curtains drawn to provide him privacy.  He wasn’t very social. His cave protected him from his surroundings.

I hadn’t seen Mike for probably fourteen years. He lay on his bed, curled up, his back to us, his body as lean as I remember it. “Mary Ann,” he called loudly as she bent over to kiss him on his cheek.

Mary Ann. As long as I could remember, her family, even her parents, referred to her as Sis or Sissy. She had two younger brothers, but really, I think everyone thought of her as their big sister.

Her father in particular used to piss me off. He insisted that his wife shouldn’t work, but from the time she was twelve, Mary Ann worked, contributing her income to the household budget. One Friday afternoon in high school, Mary Ann learned that she wouldn’t be going to the movies with us because her father had accepted a babysitting job for her. He knew that she would use the money she made on Friday night to take her brothers to the movies on Saturday, giving him the afternoon free to be with her mother.

After Mary Ann’s husband died, Mike wondered aloud what they were going to do with her, as if she had ever been their burden.

I wanted to strangle him on Mary Ann’s behalf, to slap him silly, over the years.

But as I saw him lying on the bed, calling her name, I understood that the two had found a place of grace between them.

I have a picture in my mind of our fathers at the table the night of our date. My dad was raised on a farm; Mary Ann’s was the child of Eastern European immigrants. Both had served in World War II.

There was something rather dashing about them dressed in their suits, the slight scent of Old Spice on their clean-shaven faces. These were men who would know what to do with the muffler lying on P Street.

My father died in 1994 from complications of Alzheimer’s. He’d been in a nursing home for two years, had spent the previous ten years slowly being swallowed by the disease.

Mary Ann was at his memorial, and at my mother’s twelve years later.

It’s not that parents become like children when they begin to decline and need our care. It’s just that the balance changes. It’s a dance that has no choreography, and is different for every set of parent and child. Who leads and who follows is always in flux: Sometimes both lead. Other times both follow. Then there are moments when both surrender to love and the dance becomes graceful.

Maybe that’s what touches the heart when a friend’s parent dies, seeing that it can become more graceful over time.

He called her name. Mary Ann. Not Sis. Not Sissy.

Mary Ann.

The Grace of Everyday Living

Summer is in season. The summer solstice is two weeks away, but, summer is in season here where my writing shed lives.

When I lived in San Francisco, it would be a foggy day. There might have been other foggy days, but there was always the one that seemed to herald to me a change of season.

Here, it’s the bright morning sun with a cool breeze finding its way into my writing shed. I think the same birds visit at this time of year as other seasons. But their songs sound like summer to me.

Summer is in season.

I love the day that heralds the seasonal change – the passage of time.  It seems foolish to ever want time to stand still – or worse, to kill time – doing whatever it is  we do when we say, “I’m just killing time.”

I did a major housecleaning in my writing shed. Books had been strewn on the floor, magazines haphazardly placed in baskets, old photos stored in multiple places, waiting until I got around to organizing them.

It’s great to find old photos. Talk about visible signs of time passing. I found photos of my stepdaughters taken at the Renaissance Faire, at Fort Point, on Fathers’ Day – the French toast brunch they’d prepared spread before us.

I came upon one of my mother and I taken twenty years ago in front of the Haida totem pole that had been installed in Sausalito as part of a celebration of Haida culture and art. The Haida artists had carved it in its place.

I visited the totem pole from time to time — experiencing  it.

One early morning (I can’t say for certain, but I think it was in the fall), as I sat at Caffee Trieste, I saw the totem pole being carried away on a truck. I knew that the installation was temporary, but I hadn’t known when it would leave. Perhaps it had been there a year, through the four seasons.

I felt somehow privileged to see it pass by me, as if I was in the right place at the right time. I think it would have been much harder on me if I had just gone to see it one day and found it gone.

My father was still alive when the photo of my mother and I was taken, but Alzheimers had already stolen him from us. I had just recently divorced my husband. So it was just my mother and me.

Those were good times with my mother. She trusted me, which she didn’t always do. I used to think it was because I was untrustworthy, not worthy of her trust. But time taught me that that was just the flaw in her tapestry – not trusting love.

But this photo captured a moment of trust. Two women on their own, riding change.

Spring and fall seem like active times to me – times for planting and gathering. Summer and winter seem to me to be more about nourishing and trusting and waiting. Winter is about trusting that the sun will return. Summer about trusting that what you planted in the spring will grow – that you will be able to reap it in the fall for nourishment in the winter.

I’ve gathered a number of baskets over the years since that photo of my mother and I was taken. As I went through my writing shed, divesting myself of stuff I no longer need, organizing the stuff I do need, I emptied baskets. I have five empty baskets — baskets waiting to be filled.

I think that might be what summer is to me – baskets waiting to be filled.

Lavender Honey

My friend George died six months ago today.

He died as fall was fading into winter. Now, with the waning of spring, there are signs of summer. The lilac blossoms are gone. The lavender stalks will blossom within a day or two. I pass the lavender on my way from the house to my writing shed.

It’s not so much that I miss their scent throughout the rest of the year as that I anticipate it as I see the passage of time in my garden. I know that one morning the scent will be there — a presence. Along with that — the faint buzz of bees. I wonder where they are making their lavender honey.

Lavender honey.

The sound of those words — lavender honey — slows me down. I’ve been wanting to slow down. Not having time slow down, I know that’s not possible, but my slowing down. Taking time to feel that there is time enough, if I let it be.

George’s dying was hard for me. I thought I would be a much bigger part of it because we met as hospice volunteers. I actually think that George pushed me away, as he did many others. He was so sweet and supportive that everyone thought that’s what George wanted—to be up close sweetly supported.

But, really, George kept people at bay. I suspect that for complicated reasons, he just felt safer that way. And so that’s how his dying went. In retrospect, I can see how bravely he faced it; how he marshaled all the forces he was accustomed to using in relationships to carry him through this most difficult of relationships. The one we have with dying.

Contained anger was a big force with George. I suspect that underneath that anger was the pain that people he loved both loved and betrayed him. That’s a difficult dichotomy to live with.

Fifteen months between his diagnosis and his death. During that time, lavender’s presence graced the path to my writing shed. I couldn’t tell you the day I noticed it was gone. Or even if I noticed it was gone. It’s just that once again, I anticipate its presence.

A friend who was a midwife to George’s death recently listened to the music Tom and Rob created that night that George died. She said it captured his breathing as he made his way through his final breaths.

Inspiration means filled with the gods. Perhaps expiration is about releasing them—releasing all those life forces that animate us.

About three months before he died, George wrote and then made a video recording of a message he wanted to leave behind. I watched it recently. Frankly, I can’t remember specifics. I just know that it brought his presence back to me. It’s the presence that isn’t armored with contained anger.

Loving is neither simple, nor easy. Sometimes you have to stand at the precipice of disappointment of what you wanted and what you got—and be grateful. For me, that’s being in a state of grace.

If Tom’s and Rob’s music is any reflection of George’s dying, then he died in a state of grace.

I read recently that grace is the unearned gift.


Lavender honey.

Unearned gifts.